by Peter Shinn | Brownfield.com
Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman and more than two-dozen Nebraska agribusiness professionals and government officials arrived in Havana, Cuba Monday, with a single-minded goal of generating additional agricultural sales to Cuba. Heineman’s visit, his third as governor, has generated intense media scrutiny and yielded some immediate results, as well.
Pedro Alvarez, Cuba’s chief procurement officer and long-time head of Alimport, got the negotiations started off quickly between his professional purchasers and the Nebraska delegation. During an opening ceremony at the National Hotel, Alvarez promised to buy 75,000 tonnes of wheat from Nebraska and said that was just the beginning.
“I can announce we will be signing for 75,000 tonnes of U.S. wheat from Nebraska, among other products,” proclaimed Alvarez.
Ahead of Monday afternoon’s ceremony, at least a half dozen camera crews and even more journalists from CNN, Reuters, the AP, several European news agency and Cuban media descended on Heineman while the Nebraska delegation awaited clearance through customs. The reasons for the stepped-up media interest in Heineman’s visit are open to question. In any event, Heineman told Brownfield he’d never seen anything like it.
“I think this is the most press interest that we’ve ever seen,” Heineman said. “I’m excited about it - that means they have a high interest in what we’re doing,” he added. “It also, I think, speaks to the issue that Nebraska has been very successful in expanding this relationship and this partnership with Cuba.”
Of course, current U.S. policy makes trading with Cuba difficult. Cuba, for example, must pay in cash and sales are restricted to agricultural and medical goods. Some have suggested that with Fidel Castro in poor health, a change in Cuban leadership could lead to a less restrictive U.S. policy. But Heineman won’t discuss the matter.
“I try not to get into those issues,” Heineman said. “I’m here to help my farmers and ranchers and ship more Nebraska ag products down here if it makes sense for Cuba, and that’s what we’re going to work on.”
That’s a somewhat divergent view from that of Pedro Alvarez, who gave a detailed presentation Monday evening on the reasons the U.S. should end its decades-long embargo on Cuba. Alvarez said repeatedly he wasn’t a politician. But he also hammered home the point that Cuba could be a much larger market for U.S. ag goods if current restrictions on trade were lifted. And he urged the U.S. delegation to push for a change in U.S. policy to Cuba.
Afterward his presentation, Alvarez told Brownfield someone would benefit from Cuban economic growth. And he suggested other international ag producers see U.S. farmers and ranchers as a threat to their business.
“Competitors of the U.S. farming economy become worried every time they see Cuba becoming closer to U.S. farmers,” said Alvarez.
Opinions vary as to whether a potential change in leadership here in Cuba could usher in a new era of U.S. – Cuban ag trade. Various pieces of legislation aimed at liberalizing trade with Cuba have been introduced by a wide range of U.S. lawmakers over the years and only one, the measure that allowed the current level of limited trade with Cuba, passed Congress in 2000. And Kirby Jones, President of the U.S.–Cuba Trade Association, tells Brownfield the change of leadership in the U.S. Congress may have more impact in the near term than any potential change in Cuba’s regime.
“The problem has been the leadership, the previous years, has prevented votes,” Jones explained. “I think now we have a different situation - we have a new leadership in which, over the years, has been very supportive of changing the policy.”
Whether that proves true or not, what seems clear is that Cuban officials want access to U.S. agricultural goods. Ricardo Alarcon is the President of the Cuban People’s Congress. He’s widely regarded as the number-three man in the country, and he met Monday afternoon with Heineman and other top Nebraska government officials. During the meeting, Alarcon took questions from the journalists accompanying the Nebraska delegation. He told Brownfield he’s confident U.S.-Cuban relations will return to normal, eventually.
“You will - you are young enough to be witness - and you will be witness of a normalization of relations between the two countries,” Alarcon predicted. “And when that day comes, people will remember those who were wise enough to develop and preserve those friendly links in the bad times,” he added in an apparent reference to Heineman.
Ethanol came up at the meeting yesterday evening between Alarcon and Heineman, as well. Alarcon had heard about Nebraska’s booming ethanol industry and wanted to make sure Nebraska couldn’t use dry edible beans to make the renewable fuel. Alarcon told Brownfield he had been concerned because rice and beans are a staple part of the Cuban diet.
“I just asked him a very specific and direct question: ‘Can you produce ethanol from beans?’” explained Alarcon. “And I was happy to learn, so far, that’s impossible.”