Thompson to lead business
group to Cuba
By Ana Radelat, Clarion-Ledger,
Washington Bureau. May 31, 2005.
WASHINGTON - Mississippi farmers hoping
to give Cubans a taste for catfish and other
local delicacies are heading to the island
nation this week.
Second District Rep. Bennie Thompson, who
visited Cuba in 2000, will lead the group
heading Wednesday to Havana on a five-day
trip to drum up business with the government
of Fidel Castro.
"If we aren't lucky with our individual
pursuits, at least we can bring back a little
knowledge," said Dickie Stevens, part
owner of Isola-based Confish Inc., the largest
fish processor in Mississippi.
Also planning to travel to Cuba are Isaac
Byrd, a Jackson lawyer and soybean farmer;
Leflore County Board of Supervisors President
Robert Moore; Sykes Sturdivant, whose family
owns a cotton and corn farm in Glendora;
Mike Wagner, owner of a rice, corn and soybean
farm in Sumner; and Danny Brookins, an exporter
who has a business in Biloxi.
Except for Thompson, members of the delegation
are paying their own way to Havana. The
New York-based Christopher Reynolds Foundation,
a nonprofit that funds projects aimed at
improving U.S.-Cuba relations, is paying
Thompson's travel costs.
Thompson said he discovered a new market
for farmers in his Delta-based district
during his first trip to Cuba.
"Agriculture is the second-leading
income producer in my district next to gaming,"
said Thompson, a Democrat. "There are
some opportunities for us in a country that
is so close to our borders."
The delegation hopes to meet with top Cuban
officials, including Castro, visit a Cuban
farm and tour historic old Havana.
Since a 2000 law modified the Cuba embargo
to allow farm product sales, hundreds of
American farmers have received permission
from the U.S. government to visit the island.
The embargo bars most Americans from spending
money on travel to Cuba.
Since the relaxation of the embargo, Cuba
has bought nearly $1 billion worth of American
farm products. Top-selling commodities have
been corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, frozen
chicken, powdered milk and lumber.
Demand in Cuba for American farm products
increased after the collapse of the Soviet
Union, Cuba's trading partner in the early
1990s. The end of the favorable trading
terms Cuba received from the Communist bloc
left the nation of about 11.5 million people
short of farm equipment, fertilizer, seed
and fuel, resulting in meager crops and
an increased need to import food.
Cuba's decision to turn itself into an
international tourism mecca also increased
the need for food imports, but importing
from Europe and the Far East cost Cuba heavily
in shipping costs. That makes the United
States an even more attractive option as
a trading partner for farm products.
American farmers prodded Congress to chisel
a crack in the Cuba embargo. Southern states
have taken advantage of their proximity
to Cuba - and their production of farm products
Cuba needs most, like poultry - to aggressively
solicit business in Cuba.
In March, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco
headed a delegation of farmers in a visit
to Havana, and a conference is scheduled
next month in Mobile to discuss a greater
role for Southern farmers in supplying food
Anti-Castro Cuban exiles object to the
trade, saying it strengthens Castro's government.
"American delegates meeting with Fidel
Castro is a disgrace," said Alfredo
Mesa, executive director of the Cuban American
National Foundation. "Obviously, we
would rather these visits not take place.
If someone travels to Cuba, we would rather
they meet with dissident leaders and the
families of political prisoners."
According to the Mississippi Development
Authority, the state sold $16 million in
farm products to the island in 2004.
The first container shipment of U.S. goods
to Cuba - mainly frozen chicken - embarked
from the Port of Gulfport in December 2001.
The port now has a contract to ship Cuba
$20 million worth of frozen chicken a year
from Mississippi and other states.
The port's executive director, Donald Allee,
said Mississippi and the rest of the Gulf
Coast had a strong trading relationship
with Cuba before relations between Havana
and Washington fell apart after Castro came
to power in 1959.
Before the embargo was imposed, Cuba was
a prime buyer of Mississippi rice and other
state products. The island could become
a major consumer of Mississippi-grown food
again, Allee said.
In trading with Cuba, American farmers
have only one customer, the Cuban government's
food importing agency, Alimport.
Allee said negotiating contracts with the
Cuban government is like doing business
in any other market.
"The interests of the Cubans are the
same as my interests: Can we be competitive?"
He's not going on next week's trip to Cuba,
but about six months ago, Allee traveled
to the island with the director of the Port
of Pascagoula, which has shipped more than
100,000 tons of poultry to Cuba.
GOP Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, head of a
group of lawmakers who wanted to keep the
Cuban embargo intact, insisted when Congress
opened trade with the island about five
years ago that sales be on a cash-only basis.
That restriction was tightened further earlier
this year to require Havana pay for U.S.
goods before they reach Cuban ports.
Even so, Stevens of Confish, which processes
about 1 million pounds of catfish each year,
said there's a chance to grow his business
"If not, there may be some humanitarian
things we can do to improve relations between
the countries," he said.