By Alison Baker | [url=http://www.qctimes.com]http://www.qctimes.com[/url]
Bill and Carla Hamilton’s business trip took them to a tropical island filled with beautiful music and exotic cuisine. Oh, yes, and to a late-night meeting over ice cream sundaes with Cuban President Fidel Castro.
“It was sort of a spur of the moment meeting on Sunday the 18th,” Carla Hamilton said. “I just couldn’t believe that we were eating ice cream sundaes with Castro at 11:30 at night. I think it’s amazing that he had time to meet with a little group of Iowans.”
The Hamiltons, from rural Charlotte, Iowa, were part of the first Iowa Trade Mission to Cuba, co-sponsored by the Greater Des Moines Partnership and the Iowa Corn Promotion Board. The mission of May 14-20 was intended to increase sales of Iowa agricultural products to Alimport, the Cuban food and agricultural products import organization. Following the enactment of the Trade Reform Act of 2000, U.S. food and agricultural suppliers can export to Cuba for the first time in more than 40 years.
The Hamiltons, whose business operations include beef production, Hamilton Auctions and Farm Management in Clinton, Iowa, and the Main Event hair salon in Clinton, joined representatives of 10 Iowa food and agriculture companies, U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge on the trade mission.
Tom Rial, the mission’s organizer and director of the Iowa Export Assistance Center with the Greater Des Moines Partnership, said the Hamiltons and other business representatives had no U.S. government restrictions placed on their sales because agricultural products are approved for trade. Boswell addressed human rights issues, but Rial said he and the business group steered clear of political dialogue and, instead, laid groundwork for future trade deals
“Our goal was to boost the image of Iowa,” Rial said. “We wanted to show that we are not backing away from a relationship with Alimort.”
Bill Hamilton, also an engineer for Union Pacific Railroad, said his personal goal was to create rapport with the Cuban government.
“My theory is that people will only buy from you if they know who you are,” he said. “I also educated myself before I left so I would know their customs; what they like and what they don’t. I think that’s a part of being a good businessman.”
The Hamiltons said they were surprised by the Cuban dictator’s warm demeanor. Castro seemed a strikingly intelligent man who knew his facts and figures, said the parents of two children, Bryce, 22, and Cedar, 19.
“I think he’s slowed down from the radical he used to be. He seemed wiser, gentler and more mellow,” said Carla Hamilton. “I definitely didn’t get the scary impression I was expecting.”
Her husband agreed. “He had no vision of grandeur, but he was a formidable opponent and kept me on my toes. He knew his business.”
Although Castro made a positive impression, the couple reserved judgment on Cuba’s communist government.
“This trip changed my opinion of Castro, although I still don’t agree with a lot of his decisions,” said Bill Hamilton, who paid his own way to Cuba. “Everything I saw while I was there was positive, but I’m sure I would have seen the bad things if we had stayed for a while.”
The Hamiltons said they would like to return to what Carla Hamilton describes as “a gorgeous country with red blooming flowers and amazing architecture.” But they hope their next trip will include more leisure time.
“We are planning to go back to Cuba in the fall to finalize some sales,” said Bill Hamilton. “I had my nose pressed up against the bus windows, but I’d still like to see more of the country when we go back.”
Rial said he is also organizing a return in January to promote sales of beef as well as pork, which Carla Hamilton said is a Cuban favorite.
The Hamiltons hope other Iowa business people will venture to Cuba.
“If it’s done in a professional manner, I really think trade with Cuba could be extremely beneficial to Iowans,” said Bill Hamilton. “There are no tariffs or subsides in Cuba, so the dollar-for-dollar trade could really make things better for the U.S. as well as Cuba.”
“We are living in a global world now, and we should embrace that,” Carla Hamilton added. “To us, this trip was about Iowans making things better for Iowans.”