JOHN PAIN | Associated Press
Richard Waltzer doesn’t hesitate when asked to name his beverage company’s best customer - Fidel Castro, of course.
“He’s paying cash up front,” said Waltzer, president of Splash Tropical Drinks of Fort Lauderdale. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Splash has sold more than $1 million in cola and juice concentrates, ice cream and daiquiri mixes and other food products to Castro’s Cuba since the United States eased its trade embargo on the communist nation four years ago.
As Florida exports to Cuba increase, the state’s farmers, ranchers and businesses are joining counterparts elsewhere in the United States to push for an end to the embargo that has been in place for more than four decades to topple Castro.
Congress passed a law in late 2000 that let U.S. farmers and companies sell livestock and agricultural and food products to Cuba on a cash-only basis. The trade is one-way, so Cuba can’t sell anything to the United States.
The trade is contentious in Florida. Many businesses feel it is their right and duty to sell products and help the Cuban people. But the state is also home to Miami’s Cuban exile community, many of whom are the most ardent opponents to any dealings with Castro and his government.
The businesses trading with Cuba say they aren’t just trying to make money. They say they are doing humanitarian work as well by helping feed average Cubans.
“Is someone trying to tell me to wait until there’s a new president in Cuba before we can start feeding people again? If someone needs help, you help them right away,” said John Parke Wright IV, a Naples cattle broker working to open trade. “Our leadership has been wrong in trying to starve the island of Cuba.”
But some Cuban-American leaders lambast that notion.
“They mask their greed with this veneer of humanitarianism but Mother Teresa they are not,” said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican. “I’m all for capitalism, just don’t try to dress it up as humanitarian acts.”
Ros-Lehtinen and other Cuban-Americans say these shipments only reach elite Cubans, a claim denied by government officials and people on the island.
Pedro Alvarez, chairman of the Cuban food import company Alimport, said earlier this year that at least 95 percent of the U.S. food that Cuba buys is sold to average citizens at low cost on their monthly government food rations.
Among the American food average Cubans said they have received on their rations are skinless, boneless chicken breasts, eggs, rice and corn meal.
Florida is getting an increasing amount of the farm trade to Cuba. It had $13.4 million in exports to Cuba last year, more than three times higher than the $4.4 million sent in 2002, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Foreign Trade Division. Through May of this year, Florida exports to Cuba were $5.6 million, U.S. Census data show.
That is still a drop in the bucket, though - Florida sent $2.5 billion worth of goods last year to Brazil, the state’s No. 1 export destination.
And it’s difficult to determine the exact impact of Cuban sales on Florida’s economy, said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council Inc. That’s because not all the state’s exports to Cuba were produced here, but they still are counted because they are sent from Florida, he said.
Total U.S. exports to Cuba last year were $257 million, well behind the about $900 million of top exporter Venezuela, Kavulich said. The top U.S. trading partners to Cuba include North Dakota, Iowa and Illinois.
Since those states produce staple foods such as corn and grain that Florida doesn’t, Kavulich said Florida isn’t likely to catch up to those states under the current trade rules.
Wright hopes that isn’t so. He has ties to Cuba that date to the 1850s, when his great-great-great grandfather James McKay started shipping Florida cattle to the Caribbean nation.
McKay’s daughter married into the Lykes family, large Florida landowners and shipping magnates who also sent cattle to Cuba in the 19th Century. That trade ended after Castro took power in 1959 and seized Lykes property. The family still has a $3.6 million claim for the land on file with the U.S. government.
But the media-savvy Wright, who is fond of wearing guayabera shirts and cowboy hats, said he doesn’t hold that against Castro. He argues that he is working for the greater good in opening up trade to Cuba.
His company, J.P. Wright & Co., plans to send Florida-bred cattle to Cuba this summer. He expects the 300-head sale to be for nearly $1 million and to net him a small profit. But he says the deal is not about money, but rather putting more meat and dairy products on Cuba’s tables.
Wright hopes that growing trade with Cuba will cause a groundswell of support to end the embargo. But that doesn’t appear likely - President Bush has said he would block any attempts to weaken or eliminate the embargo and his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, also supports the trade and travel restrictions.
Ros-Lehtinen, one of the embargo’s staunchest supporters in Congress, was also doubtful about further relaxation. She added that although the current trade was legal, “I would be ashamed if I were a business owner doing business with a dictator like Fidel Castro.”
Joe Garcia, executive director of the influential Cuban American National Foundation exile group, called the trade “commerce with tragedy.”
“I think it’s sad that Floridians, who know much more about the suffering in Cuba, are doing business with Castro,” he said.
But not all of Florida’s Cuban-Americans agree.
“Forty-five years has been long enough. There comes a time and place for a different approach,” said businessman Michael Mauricio, whose family left Cuba in the early 1900s. He said U.S. companies should be able to trade with Cuba, just as they are with another communist nation, China.
He has exported about $750,000 worth of fruits and vegetables to Cuba through his company, Florida Produce of Hillsborough County Inc. in Tampa, one of several Florida cities that have sent trade delegations to Cuba.
Mauricio disputes embargo supporters’ contention that the U.S. food never reaches average Cubans. “I’ve seen my apples in supermarkets. I’ve seen my apples in fruit stands,” he said.
Even when told of this, Ros-Lehtinen maintained that the farm trade only benefits one person - Castro. “I’m sure that he’s eating good steak,” she said.
Wright said that was ridiculous: “Fidel Castro and his family can’t eat all this beef.”
Associated Press correspondent Anita Snow in Havana contributed to this report.
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