Monday, May 26, 2008

Texas delegation heading to Cuba on agricultural trade mission

Monday, May 26, 2008
By ALFREDO CORCHADO / The Dallas Morning News

Louis Broussard of Beaumont has a personal reason he wants to see his Sunset rice brand back in Cuba. The company started by his great-great-grandfather in 1892 was once a dominant force there. Another Texan, Frank Walker of McKinney, wants to sell desserts and perhaps sausage to Cuba. Both will be part of the first official Texas delegation to visit Cuba in more than four decades. The group headed by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples will arrive Tuesday in Havana for a four-day agricultural trade mission.

"I've been offered advice to proceed with extreme caution from various individuals in Texas," Mr. Staples said. "But it's a new day, and any trade that involves a basic human need such as food can only lead to positive results." Several members of the delegation said it's time to lift the 46-year-old U.S. trade embargo of Cuba, which they said is a throwback policy that impedes trade between neighboring countries with historic ties. "It's time to move forward," said Mr. Walker, 68, president of Walker Ltd., a McKinney company that represents food manufacturers. "You can get more flies with honey than you can with vinegar. We haven't had any honey with nine, 10 presidents," he said, referring to the eight U.S. presidents since John F. Kennedy who followed his policy aimed at isolating communist Cuba, just 90 miles off the Florida coast.

The trip was approved by the U.S. Treasury and the Cuban government under a 2000 agreement that limits U.S. trade with the island to food, agricultural products and medicine. The Texas products include livestock, cotton, rice, soybeans, wheat and beans. While the U.S. government approved the trip, it insists that Cuba's new leader, Raúl Castro, represents more of the same repressive policies – albeit with some changes that could have impact in years to come, "though that remains to be seen," said Caleb McCarry, the State Department's Cuba transition coordinator.

Since taking over from his ailing brother Fidel in February, Raúl Castro has commuted death sentences and lifted a number of restrictions on daily life, allowing Cubans to own cellphones and stay at tourist hotels. The government signed two important U.N. human rights agreements that were long opposed by Fidel Castro. Fidel Castro, 81, underwent intestinal surgery in July 2006 and has not fully recovered. He resigned as president after almost half a century in power.

Mr. McCarry is dubious of the changes. "The steps that have been taken continue to be accompanied by elements of control and all that entails," he said in an interview in Washington. "That's what's not changing in Cuba." Many of the members of the Texas delegation prefer not to talk politics. "I want to make sure I stay focused on trade and not politics, but the fact that we're leading a delegation of top Texas agriculture leaders speaks volumes of the potential opportunities that await Texas," Mr. Staples said. "Regardless of political philosophy, we can all see the benefits of sound trading opportunities based on food and agriculture products among neighbors. This is not about politics, but about food." Since 2001, Texas has averaged about $25 million annually in agricultural trade with Cuba. "This is no junket," Mr. Walker said. "This is business."

The trip also comes as Cuba gains the attention of U.S. presidential candidates. Last week, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain vowed to keep the current policy in place, saying he'd favor upholding a hard-line policy and not one of engagement, as proposed by Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat. "These steps would send the worst possible signal to Cuba's dictators: There is no need to undertake fundamental reforms," Mr. McCain said. "They can simply wait for a unilateral change in U.S. policy." On Friday, Mr. Obama said he would re-engage with Cuba and "immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island."

"It's time to let Cuban-Americans see their mothers and their fathers, their sisters and their brothers. It's time to let Cuban-American money make their families less dependent upon the Castro regime," he said. Members of the Texas delegation are closely watching political developments. "We need a total elimination of the embargo," said Mr. Broussard, the rice farmer who first traveled to Cuba in 1999 and was surprised to learn that Cubans still remembered the company's Sunset brand logo. "Cuba is a natural Texas market, and we need to get it back."

Improved ties between Texas and Cuba could usher in a new era of trade in a post-embargo era, said Cynthia Thomas, president of Dallas-based TriDimension Strategies. Texas industries with potential for expanded trade include airlines, oil, technology and tourism. "There is a significantly higher level of seriousness with this upcoming trade mission than other trade groups," said Ms. Thomas, who has been involved with other U.S. trade missions and is the catalyst for this trip. "I have a sense that we are sitting down to play a chess rather than checkers game."

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