By Ana Radelat | Clarion-Ledger Washington Bureau
Mississippi farmers hoping to give Cubans a taste for catfish and other local delicacies are heading to the island nation this week.
Second District Rep. Bennie Thompson, who visited Cuba in 2000, will lead the group heading Wednesday to Havana on a five-day trip to drum up business with the government of Fidel Castro.
“If we aren’t lucky with our individual pursuits, at least we can bring back a little knowledge,” said Dickie Stevens, part owner of Isola-based Confish Inc., the largest fish processor in Mississippi.
Also planning to travel to Cuba are Isaac Byrd, a Jackson lawyer and soybean farmer; Leflore County Board of Supervisors President Robert Moore; Sykes Sturdivant, whose family owns a cotton and corn farm in Glendora; Mike Wagner, owner of a rice, corn and soybean farm in Sumner; and Danny Brookins, an exporter who has a business in Biloxi.
Except for Thompson, members of the delegation are paying their own way to Havana. The New York-based Christopher Reynolds Foundation, a nonprofit that funds projects aimed at improving U.S.-Cuba relations, is paying Thompson’s travel costs.
Thompson said he discovered a new market for farmers in his Delta-based district during his first trip to Cuba.
“Agriculture is the second-leading income producer in my district next to gaming,” said Thompson, a Democrat. “There are some opportunities for us in a country that is so close to our borders.”
The delegation hopes to meet with top Cuban officials, including Castro, visit a Cuban farm and tour historic old Havana.
Since a 2000 law modified the Cuba embargo to allow farm product sales, hundreds of American farmers have received permission from the U.S. government to visit the island. The embargo bars most Americans from spending money on travel to Cuba.
Since the relaxation of the embargo, Cuba has bought nearly $1 billion worth of American farm products. Top-selling commodities have been corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, frozen chicken, powdered milk and lumber.
Demand in Cuba for American farm products increased after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s trading partner in the early 1990s. The end of the favorable trading terms Cuba received from the Communist bloc left the nation of about 11.5 million people short of farm equipment, fertilizer, seed and fuel, resulting in meager crops and an increased need to import food.
Cuba’s decision to turn itself into an international tourism mecca also increased the need for food imports, but importing from Europe and the Far East cost Cuba heavily in shipping costs. That makes the United States an even more attractive option as a trading partner for farm products.
American farmers prodded Congress to chisel a crack in the Cuba embargo. Southern states have taken advantage of their proximity to Cuba ó and their production of farm products Cuba needs most, like poultry ó to aggressively solicit business in Cuba.
In March, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco headed a delegation of farmers in a visit to Havana, and a conference is scheduled next month in Mobile to discuss a greater role for Southern farmers in supplying food to Cuba.
Anti-Castro Cuban exiles object to the trade, saying it strengthens Castro’s government.
“American delegates meeting with Fidel Castro is a disgrace,” said Alfredo Mesa, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation. “Obviously, we would rather these visits not take place. If someone travels to Cuba, we would rather they meet with dissident leaders and the families of political prisoners.”
According to the Mississippi Development Authority, the state sold $16 million in farm products to the island in 2004.
The first container shipment of U.S. goods to Cuba ó mainly frozen chicken ó embarked from the Port of Gulfport in December 2001. The port now has a contract to ship Cuba $20 million worth of frozen chicken a year from Mississippi and other states.
The port’s executive director, Donald Allee, said Mississippi and the rest of the Gulf Coast had a strong trading relationship with Cuba before relations between Havana and Washington fell apart after Castro came to power in 1959.
Before the embargo was imposed, Cuba was a prime buyer of Mississippi rice and other state products. The island could become a major consumer of Mississippi-grown food again, Allee said.
In trading with Cuba, American farmers have only one customer, the Cuban government’s food importing agency, Alimport.
Allee said negotiating contracts with the Cuban government is like doing business in any other market.
“The interests of the Cubans are the same as my interests: Can we be competitive?”
He’s not going on next week’s trip to Cuba, but about six months ago, Allee traveled to the island with the director of the Port of Pascagoula, which has shipped more than 100,000 tons of poultry to Cuba.
GOP Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, head of a group of lawmakers who wanted to keep the Cuban embargo intact, insisted when Congress opened trade with the island about five years ago that sales be on a cash-only basis. That restriction was tightened further earlier this year to require Havana pay for U.S. goods before they reach Cuban ports.
Even so, Stevens of Confish, which processes about 1 million pounds of catfish each year, said there’s a chance to grow his business in Cuba.
“If not, there may be some humanitarian things we can do to improve relations between the countries,” he said.
Mississippi ports rank high in farm exports to Cuba (in million of metric tons shipped)
1. South Louisiana — 553
2. Houston — 243
3. New Orleans — 212
4. Westwego, La. — 68
5. Gulfport — 60
6. Jacksonville — 58
7. Lake Charles, La. — 58
8. Beaumont, Texas — 53
9. Norfolk, Va. — 39
10. Pascagoula — 32
Source: U.S. Commerce Department