Cuba Wants a Taste of America

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Castro samples a soy shake at an American food producers exhibition in Havana

In Cuba's struggling economy, eggs are often a luxury for many families. But they might be more plentiful if the government could import them more cheaply from the nearby U.S. — which has kept an economic embargo against the communist island for four decades. So it was little wonder that Cuban President Fidel Castro made a point of dropping by the American Egg Board's stand at the Havana food exposition that started yesterday. "How fast can you make them?" he asked New Yorker Howard Kelmer, 64, who is the Board's senior representative — and who holds the Guinness Book of World Records distinction as history's fastest omelet-maker (427 in 30 minutes).

But after Castro left, Kelmer confided that he was already tired of flipping huevos. "I want to get out of here and go sightseeing," said Kelmer, who had never been to Cuba before. And, of course, he added: "I want to buy some cigars."

The Havana exhibition, which concludes on Monday, has drawn almost 300 U.S. firms, the most Yanqui companies ever to visit Cuba since Castro took power in 1959. But it's as much photo op as food fair for Castro — a chance to fuel the growing anti-embargo movement in the U.S., where this fall Congress is expected to pass legislation allowing Americans to travel to Cuba for the first time since the embargo began in 1962. Castro knows that if Cuba's 11 million people want more eggs (and meat, chicken and rice), gringo businessmen like Kelmer want a new market — as well as the cigars and other tourist delights that have been forbidden fruit for 40 years.

Governors from agriculture states — especially Minnesota's flamboyant Jesse Ventura — were in full force at the expo, and all called for an eventual end to the embargo. And ironically, Florida, the seat of the embargo's staunchest Cuban exile support, was the most heavily represented — at least by business if not by Gov. Jeb Bush, who had publicly chastised Ventura for attending the event. "This trip has been an emotional roller coaster for me," said Carlos de Quesada, 34, the son of Cuban exiles who represents a Tampa livestock shipment firm, Cuba-Florida Cattlemen, and who was himself making his first visit to Cuba. "But I and my Cuban-American friends back home, we all think this is a good thing."

But can Cuba really become a lucrative thing for U.S. business? Congress, claiming it was time to end Washington's cold-war Cuba policy, softened the embargo two years ago by allowing food and medicine sales to the island — but anti-Castro pols worked in a condition that Castro would have to pay in cash. With no access to U.S. credit, they reasoned, Castro would never be able to buy. As he so often does, he called their bluff late last year and purchased $30 million worth of U.S. grain, poultry and other foods — with cash — the first such shipments to Cuba in 38 years.

Since then, Castro has paid cash for more than $100 million in additional food and livestock feed shipments, whetting the appetite of U.S. agribusiness giants like ADM and Cargill, as well as Midwestern farmers. By 2005, say optimistic forecasts, the total could reach $1.4 billion, raising Cuba from 51st to around 30th among countries that buy food products from the U.S. As a result, Congress is now considering whether to drop the cash-only requirement.

Still, James Cason, the U.S. Interests Section chief in Havana, said this week that Cuba's is a threadbare, "Jurassic" economy that could never meet U.S. business's enthusiastic expectations. Cuba, he noted, has had trouble in the past repaying credit on all but the most favorable terms. The Bush Administration also insists that most of the U.S. food ends up on the tables of communist officials and bureaucrats, not average Cubans, a charge that Castro angrily denies. "Millions of tons of food have been distributed free to six million people" since a hurricane ravaged the island last November, insisted Castro, who reveled in feeding U.S. livestock for photographers. If Cuba can't pay for any of the food purchases it signs for during this expo, he said, "we'll give [Cason] $100 million." (Cason had no reply.)

Disputes were overshadowed by deals at the expo, however, as U.S. companies inked new multi-million-dollar pacts with government-run hotels, restaurants and supermarkets, as well as foreign-run enterprises on the island. Some reasoned that engaging Cuba economically will, in the long run, help transform the country democratically. Michael Walter, 33, president of Splash Tropical Drinks in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., was poised to sign a marketing partnership in Cuba and the Caribbean with Cuba's state-owned rum company, Havana Club. "If a country is a threat to us, that's one thing, but I don't think Cuba is," said Walter. "This is a new era and we need to work together and let the past go."

Castro, of course, agreed, but admitted: "The day the blockade ends, I will be a bit nostalgic." Meantime, Kelmer and colleagues were sealing a $1.2 million deal to sell 30 million eggs to Cuba. It's not a record; but in terms of U.S.-Cuba relations, it's the sort of thing few thought they'd ever see in Castro's lifetime.