By Thomas Ginsberg | The Philadelphia Inquirer Knight Ridder/Tribune
Joining the bandwagon of trade with Cuba, Philadelphia port and state agriculture officials are scheduled to fly to Havana next week to sign commitments for up to $10 million in exports to Cuba.
The signings would make Philadelphia the only port and Pennsylvania the only Northeastern state with limited commerce with the government of Fidel Castro, the officials said yesterday.
Cuba, in return, will ask the Pennsylvania delegation to go back home and “promote” full trade and normalized relations with Cuba—a request that the delegation leader said he accepts.
“The embargo has been in effect since 1962 and it doesn’t make sense,” said Dennis Wolf, the Pennsylvania agriculture secretary.
Wolf called the document’s wording mild and non-binding, but that he agreed with it anyway: “We are in favor of opening trade with Cuba.”
The Bush administration has opposed expansion of the limited trade that Congress now allows with Cuba and has taken steps to crack down on American tourists going there in violation of a travel ban.
But increasingly, companies and government officials—Republican and Democrat—have joined with the Cuban government to facilitate business under a 2000 U.S. law that lifted parts of embargo on agriculture products sold for cash. As of last month, 17 ports—all in the South or Southeast—and numerous companies and local officials have signed trade commitments.
Gov. Rendell, asked earlier this week about Pennsylvania joining the trend, said, “We are hopeful.”
Since 2001, sales of U.S. food products, along with pharmaceuticals allowed under separate legislation, have totaled nearly $500 million, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a non-partisan research group based in New York.
Cuba was ranked the 29th biggest market last year out of more than 200 foreign markets for U.S. exporters, according to the trade group.
“This is a golden opportunity,” said Sal Candelaria, president of Local 1291 of the International Longshoremen’s Association, a member of the delegation. “I would like to see us on the ground floor, to show the Cubans what we have to offer.”
In addition to agriculture and port officials, the Pennsylvania delegation will include representatives of about 30 Pennsylvania companies, including Tasty Baking Co., maker of TastyKakes.
John Jantos, chief of international business development at the state Department of Agriculture, said the companies would look to sell poultry, fish and livestock feed from central Pennsylvania, and fruit from the Lehigh Valley, all through the Philadelphia port.
He said he could not project how much business the port or Pennsylvania companies might get, although he noted that Cuba has made good on about 70 percent of its promised purchases overall.
The delegation will be among about 150 U.S. companies, states and ports gathering in Havana next week to finalize and trumpet their trade commitments during a three-day meeting, organized to maximize publicity.
“This shows that American companies want to continue expanding business with Cuba,” Pedro Alvarez, head of the state-run import company Alimport, told the Associated Press this week. Alimport plans to commit to $100 million in purchases of U.S. goods.
The Cuban government is the sole buyer. It distributes rationed food staples through state-run bodegas, where ordinary Cubans can buy them with coupons. The government has allowed some private farmers to sell at farmer markets, where food is more plentiful but costly. It also runs special stores where coveted products can be had at a steep price.
Pamela Ann Martin, an organizer of the Pennsylvania trip and president of Molimar Export Consultants Inc., based in Upper Dublin, Pa., likened the signing to an official green light for striking deals.
“If they come to an agreement, they will sign it there and shipping companies can start right away” offering delivery service, Martin said. “This is wonderful.”
The U.S.-Cuba trade group, while welcoming the commerce, said accused Cuba of favoring U.S. companies that speak out forcefully against the embargo.
“Commerce should be based on good products at a good price with efficient delivery terms,” John S. Kavulich II, president of the New York-based group, “not who is running to a microphone the fastest.”
U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez (D, N.J.), who has proposed a tax on companies that lobby against the embargo in return for Cuban import rights, said Pennsylvania’s commitment appeared to be “watered down” compared to advocacy commitments signed by some others.
“For anybody to do it as a condition of a contract is, in my mind, fundamentally wrong,” Menendez said.
Jantos, however, said trade could help nudge Cuba toward a freer system and faulted U.S. officials for sticking by the embargo to placate Cuban expatriates based in Florida. “The administration,” he said, “is playing domestic politics with international policy.”