U.S. governors coming to Cuba to secure trade deals face more than just business haggling.
Governors and other politicians often must first confront letters and calls discouraging their trip, generally from Florida lawmakers fiercely opposed to Cuban President Fidel Castro and from other Republicans supporting long-standing U.S. trade and travel restrictions against the island.
Criticism of their visit then continues, often long after the governors return to their home states.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, in Cuba doing business, has carefully steered clear of anything smelling of politics since his arrival last weekend.
“The products we are negotiating are legal; we are not engaged in international politics,” he told The Associated Press in an interview early Tuesday. “We’re keeping focused on what the mission is.”
Heineman later signed an agreement with the Cuban government to export US$17 million in agricultural goods to the island, starting with the first U.S. shipment of great northern beans since Castro came to power in 1959.
Corn, wheat and soybeans were also included in the agreement, which Cuba said it will fulfill within the next 18 months.
Heineman, the fifth U.S. governor to travel to Cuba on business, declined to express any opinions about the U.S. trade embargo, saying that the policy is in the hands of U.S. President George W. Bush and Congress.
In a news conference Tuesday, he also avoided confirming the veracity of a Cuban news agency article that said he “advocated the normalization of relations with Cuba” shortly after arriving to Havana.
He later told the AP he hadn’t spoken to any Cuban media.
Perhaps Heineman was taking cues from a visit to Cuba by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco earlier this year. The governor, a Democrat, signed agreements to sell US$15 million worth of Louisiana products to the island, but then faced an attack by Republicans upon her return for having a lobster lunch with Castro.
Blanco also watched her words while here. In Havana, she said members of the trade delegation would share their experiences and views on the embargo with the state’s members of Congress, but stopped short of saying she would lobby for an end to the restrictions.
Heineman had yet to meet with Castro as of midday Tuesday, but had spent time with Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque. He said the minister talked about trade with Nebraska as well as some of Cuba’s concerns about U.S. restrictions.
The decades-old embargo severely limits travel and trade with the island, but an exception created in 2000 allows food and agricultural products to be sold to Cuba on a cash-only basis.
The Bush administration has recently tightened the embargo, despite calls for normalized relations by American farmers, businesses and several politicians, including Republicans.
Cuban officials are currently unhappy with a new U.S. rule requiring the island to make full payment for goods before cargo leaves American ports, and have threatened to reduce purchases from the United States.
Negotiations with Nebraska were intense, however, starting the moment Heineman and his trade delegation stepped off the plane in Havana.
“It shows how serious they are, and how serious we are,” said Heineman, on his first trip to the island. “We appreciate the manner they’ve received us—the conversations have been meaningful and direct.”
While avoiding politics, Heineman still defended his decision to come to Cuba.
“There are more than 20 states doing business with Cuba, and I feel our state should also take advantage of this opportunity, for our farmers,” he said. “We have high-quality products to offer, and wanted to come and have some face-to-face time here.”
The first U.S. governor to travel to Cuba, George Ryan of Illinois, came on a trade mission in 1999. The governors that followed were John Hoeven, of North Dakota; Jesse Ventura, of Minnesota; Blanco, in March, and Heineman.