May 16, 2007

The Miami Herald

Despite hassles, trade with Cuba goes on

Exporting agricultural goods to Cuba is an arduous chore under tight U.S. restrictions, but deals continue to be made with Havana.

By Martha Brannigan, [email protected] The Miami Herald, May 15, 2007.

Fidel Castro used to fete visiting American business delegations with mojitos at receptions in Havana. His brother Raúl has shunned that role since assuming power from the ailing Cuban dictator last summer, instead letting officials such as National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón do the mingling.

Initial exuberance that Raúl Castro's transition to power would spur warmer political and economic relations with the United States has waned as the Bush administration has held its hard line. But despite the headaches that come with exporting agricultural and food products to Cuba, a steady parade of hopeful U.S. salespeople keeps slogging away.

In March, a Nebraska entourage led by Gov. Dave Heineman went to tout corn and soybeans, and Delaware -- on its first trade visit -- offered up poultry and winter wheat. In April, Idaho's Gov. C.L. Butch Otter led a 35-member delegation there to hawk peas, lentils and pork.

Raúl Castro's ascent to power ''hasn't changed things at all either way'' with respect to U.S. trade, says Kirby Jones, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association. "It's totally seamless.''

Last year, U.S. exports to Cuba dipped to $340.4 million from $350.2 million in 2005. By most accounts, exports of agricultural goods to Cuba will remain a fraction of what they could be as long as U.S. restrictions remain and Cuba has friends such as China that can help fill in its most severe food gaps.

''As long as Venezuela and China prop up Cuba economically, the island will make few reforms to reach out to the U.S., because it doesn't have to,'' said John S. Kavulich II, senior policy advisor to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. "Cuba wants more than anything else to be relevant in U.S. political discourse. Everything about the relationship between the two countries is political.''


The narrow trade now permitted stems from the U.S. Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, which -- despite the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba -- allows sales of food and agricultural products to the island. A separate measure permits medical shipments.

But in February 2005 the Bush administration tightened its interpretation of the law, requiring that Cuba pay cash for purchases before they can leave U.S. ports -- an expensive hurdle. In addition, Cuba can't wire funds directly to U.S. banks; instead, it must get a letter of credit from -- or wire funds to -- a bank in a third country, typically France or elsewhere in Europe.

''Cuba would buy more if it didn't have to pay through a costly and time-consuming process,'' said Phil Peters, a vice president at the Lexington Institute, a policy research group in Arlington, Va. "It's kind of a crazy system. The trade is perfectly legal, but we treat the payments as if it's money laundering.''

Another hurdle: U.S. businessmen must obtain a license to travel to Cuba to negotiate sales. The U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control sometimes denies licenses without explanation, says Jones. "No reasons are given, and it is common for letters and telephone calls to go unanswered -- sometimes for months.''

Such barriers are drawing heightened scrutiny in Washington.

The International Trade Commission, at the behest of the Senate Finance Committee, is investigating the effects of U.S. trade and travel restrictions on U.S. exports of fish, forest and agriculture products to Cuba. The ITC will issue a report June 29.

The study comes as several bills are afoot in Congress to lift or ease the embargo, although the specter of President Bush's expected veto has stymied past legislative efforts.

''The current policies hinder further economic growth via trade with Cuba,'' Roger Johnson, North Dakota's agriculture commissioner, who has led five trade missions to Cuba since 2002, told an ITC hearing on May 1.

U.S. sales of soybean products to Cuba rose to $91 million during fiscal 2006, from $40 million in fiscal 2002. But the American Soybean Association says the United States is at risk of losing business.

''While countries like Venezuela, Brazil and Canada can trade freely with Cuba, the U.S. industry must work through third-party banks, apply for travel licenses and obtain cash in advance -- all of which are impediments to economic growth in Cuba and for the U.S. soybean producers,'' Richard Ostlie, president of the soybean trade group, said in a letter to the ITC.


U.S. rice exports to Cuba rose to 157,744 metric tons during 2006, up 2.5 percent from 153,855 metric tons a year earlier. But American rice producers say that's a fraction of the business they could do with Cuba if the restrictions were lifted.

Cuba, with 11.4 million people, is a natural market, a stone's throw away from the United States. The USA Rice Federation, a trade group based in Arlington, Va., said that proximity allows cheaper transportation and the nimbleness of shipping smaller quantities, cutting storage costs. And many Cubans prefer the quality of U.S. rice.

Still, Cuba buys rice from countries like Vietnam, in part because current restrictions make the United States an ''unreliable'' supplier, said David Coia, a spokesman for the rice group, "and we can't offer credit like China or Vietnam or almost any other country.''


Kavulich said Cuba uses food contracts to pressure U.S. firms to support an easing of trade sanctions. ''It started in '03. Cubans started tying political activism with the amount of money companies may see from Cuba,'' he said.

''Cuba's purchases from the U.S. are driven at least as much by politics as economics,'' said William A. Messina, Jr. an agricultural economist at the University of Florida.

Currently Cuba seems to be making an effort to reach out to U.S. exporters: Alimport, its food import agency, will host a big trade expo with U.S. exporters in Havana May 28-31.

It will be the first big event targeting U.S. firms since the United States tightened restrictions two years ago. Some experts speculate Cuba may feel a bit encouraged by the Democratic Congress in the United States.

Neither Alimport's president Pedro Alvarez Borrego nor the Cuban Interests Section in Washington returned phone calls seeking comment.

But in an invitation letter to the American agricultural community, Alvarez Borrego said the agency expects to nail down ''$100 million to $150 million'' in contracts, including freight, to help meet demand for the second half of 2007. And the letter said: "The U.S. providers represented in person at the event with competitive bids will stand the highest chance to be awarded supply contracts.''

'Change will come when the man dies'

Wilfredo Cancio Isla, El Nuevo Herald, May 15, 2007.

* audio Audio | Gorki Aguila's 'Parodia del Ismaelillo'

* audio Audio | Gorki Aguila's 'El Comandante' (Warning: Contains explicit language)

For punk rocker Gorki Aguila, nothing has changed in Cuba since Fidel Castro ceded power to his brother nine months ago.

''Tyranny is present . . . even if he doesn't make a public appearance,'' said the 38-year-old.

His band, Porno For Ricardo, is the leading exponent of underground music, a flourishing movement today in a country where 1.5 million people are too young to remember the better times before the economy imploded with the end of Soviet subsidies in 1991.

The band's latest CD, whose title roughly translates as ''I don't like politics, but she likes me, comrade,'' contains several profanity-laced critical songs, including one titled El Comandante.

The band has been blackballed by the government, and Aguila has received several police summonses for ''interviews.'' In 2003, he was arrested on drug charges -- entrapment, he says -- and served two years in prison. Just last week, authorities forbade his band to practice at his apartment.

But he says he will not leave Cuba, and hopes for a peaceful transition to democracy.

''Change will come when the man dies and Number Two [Raúl] retires gradually, to allow the installation of state capitalism,'' he said.

Neither Fidel has gone nor Raul arrived'

Wilfredo Cancio Isla, El Nuevo Herald, Posted on Wed, May. 16, 2007.

* Audio | Interview with Héctor Palacios

Dissident Héctor Palacios was in a Cuban military hospital when Fidel Castro ceded power in July, and when the ailing leader was a no-show at his birthday celebration Dec. 2.

After the first announcement ''the military doctors looked nervous and impatient,'' said Palacios, 63. "But the most important thing happened later on.''

''When those people got over the psychological fixation they had about Fidel Castro's immortality and saw that it was possible to live without him, I saw nurses, doctors and hospital personnel sighing with relief when the man didn't show up on Dec. 2,'' he added.

Palacios, one of the 75 dissidents sentenced to long prison terms during the so-called Black Spring of 2003, was in a security wing of a military hospital. He was freed Dec. 6 because of his health problems.

He defines Cuba today as a nation halted in time: "Neither Fidel has gone nor [brother] Raúl has arrived, and this has created a black hole that has absorbed the dreams of the new generations.''

But he believes that change will come soon, "not within the next 24 hours, but faster than most people imagine. The day Fidel Castro dies, 80 percent of the regime's potential will die . . . and the transformations will come.''

Why Chávez, Castro bash U.S. ethanol plan

By David Adams, St. Petersburg Times. May 15, 2007.

U.S. foreign policy has always gotten its fair share of abuse from Latin America. Some of it -- the Bay of Pigs, Iran-Contra and support for a litany of dictators -- may be well deserved.

But the latest controversy is perhaps harder to fathom: President Bush's support for alternative energy.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Cuba's ailing leader, Fidel Castro, have repeatedly attacked Bush's proposal to promote the hemisphere-wide production of ethanol from crops such as corn and sugar. They decry the idea as ''crazy,'' ''sinister,'' ''tragic'' and even a threat to the human species.

''Taking corn away from people and the food chain to feed automobiles'' is ''a terrible thing,'' Chávez said recently.

Biofuels as a substitute for gasoline is fast becoming a major global issue, dubbed the ''food vs. fuel'' debate. But in Latin America, it carries with it heavy political overtones due to Chávez's rising regional influence at the helm of a petroleum powerhouse.

''Chávez wants to use his oil to be more relied upon politically,'' said Peter Sommer, commercial manager for Latin America exploration and production with Chevron Corp. "He wants everyone to be indebted to him so he can be crowned king of Latin America.''

Chávez's petro-diplomacy has earned him extraordinary influence in some countries, principally Bolivia and Ecuador. But U.S. officials deny Bush's biofuels policy is designed to counter Chávez's influence.

''The U.S. and Brazil are both ethanol powers. It's not something we came up with in the last couple of years,'' said Matt McManus, a senior State Department official handling energy issues.

McManus said the key issue driving U.S. policy was national security. ''We are the most oil dependent country in the world,'' he said. "That's why ethanol is so important.''

Oil imports are responsible for 36 percent of the U.S. trade deficit, more than $60 billion a month, McManus said, and that share is rising due to the high price of oil. Because some 80 percent of the world's oil reserves are in the hands of state oil companies, the United States is vulnerable to geopolitical threats. ''We have limited access to those reserves,'' he said.

Still, Bush administration officials are quick to recognize the political spinoff from biofuels in Latin America, at a time when U.S. influence there has waned.

Ethanol and its sister, biodiesel (made with various seed or plant oils), can create thousands of new jobs stimulating rural development throughout the hemisphere, they say. Latin America's poor, who are fertile recruiting ground for anti-American populists, might be encouraged to rethink their attitude toward Washington.

Until recently, biofuels had been a word barely heard, let alone comprehended, in the hemisphere. The exception is Brazil, which has spent decades quietly developing a huge ethanol industry.

In his January State of the Union address, Bush surprised experts by announcing that he wanted to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil by increasing consumption of biofuels to 35 billion gallons by 2017.

It took a while for the significance of Bush's new ''passion'' to sink in with his perennial detractors. That changed quickly when the White House announced that Bush would travel to Brazil in early March to sign a biofuels cooperation agreement with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a lifelong leftist and political ally of Castro.

Chávez and Castro framed the debate as one between food security for poor nations and energy security for the world's richest. Most of the hostility was directed at the U.S. method of making ethanol from corn, a food staple.

In one of several articles published in Cuba, Castro predicted three billion people would die from hunger as a result.

Chávez argued that to fill up a car with ethanol used the equivalent ''grains, food and nutrients'' to feed seven people. Ironically, only a few days later, Cuba and Venezuela both announced plans to increase their own ethanol programs, in collaboration with Brazil, although Cuba has since abandoned its plans.

The debate reached a crescendo at a South American energy summit in Venezuela last month at which Chávez vowed to ''overthrow'' Bush's biofuels pact with Brazil, later announcing his own plan to supply Latin America and Caribbean countries with half-price oil.

''Most of what Chávez says is empty bluster,'' said David Rothkopf, an international business consultant and former senior trade official at the U.S. Commerce Department.

"It's ludicrous to think he can derail the agreement with Brazil. It's not a choice between ethanol and gasoline,''said Rothkopf, the author of the 600-page A Blueprint for Green Energy in the Americas.

Experts say ethanol should be seen as a complement to gasoline, not as a threat to oil.

''Ethanol is getting blown all out of proportion,'' said Jorge Pinon, a former Latin American oil executive with Amoco-BP now at the University of Miami. "Ethanol is a contributor to gasoline. It's not an alternative.''

Chávez's ideological approach to biofuels is driven by domestic politics, Pinon and others say. His anti-U.S. rhetoric plays well at home, where he has spread oil wealth among the poor and forced foreign oil companies into less favorable contracts.

But Chávez appears to have met his match in Lula. Brazil is proud of its sugar-based ethanol program, which is four to five times more efficient than using corn like the United States.

Brazil needs the United States to create a global biofuels market. Brazil is also aware that the U.S. government is pouring billions of dollars into technology to make more efficient ''cellulosic ethanol'' from nonfood crops.

In an opinion piece in the Washington Post titled Our Biofuels Partnership, Lula defended his alliance with Bush as good for the environment and good for the economies of oil importing countries.

''This is a recipe for increasing incomes, creating jobs and alleviating poverty among the many developing countries where biomass crops are abundant,'' he wrote.

New CBS lineup has flavor of mojitos and Cohibas

By Glenn Garvin, [email protected] May 16, 2007.

Calle 8 is coming to television. Cane, a drama about a wealthy Cuban-American family torn by fratricidal tensions as its sugar and rum businesses are passed down to the next generation, is part of the new fall schedule released by CBS on Wednesday.

Set in Miami, the show has a powerhouse Latino cast -- including Jimmy Smits, Rita Moreno, Hector Elizondo, Nestor Carbonell and Miami resident Paola Turbay -- and executive producer Jonathan Prince promises scripts to match.

''It's like The Godfather if Vito Corleone had passed the family business to Michael, but Sonny and Fredo were still alive and pissed off about it,'' Prince told The Miami Herald.

The announcement about Cane came at a press conference on the third day of the so-called upfronts, the New York meetings in which broadcast TV networks unveil their new shows and schedules for advertisers and the media.

CBS also introduced new dramas about vampires, wife-swappers and a seedy Nevada casino, while canceling nuclear apocalypse drama Jericho, crime drama Close To Home and Gen Y sitcom The Class.

But the big news for South Florida, in more ways than one, was Cane. Not only will a good chunk of the show be shot here, it will be the first network series to focus on the evolution of the Cuban exile experience over the past five decades. And Prince said it will educate the rest of America about everything from the Pedro Pan exodus of children from Cuba to the tension between those who left the island and those who stayed.

''It's not a documentary, it isn't on PBS,'' he said. "But it's a family drama dealing with how families really act. There will be a lot of scenes at the family dinner table, and among the things they'll talk about will be what happens when Fidel Castro dies, who will take over, and if it's Raul, what does that mean. That will be in the show because those are some of the things Cuban-Americans talk about in real life at dinner.''

Even the language will be authentic: The show will sometimes use subtitles as characters weave between English and Spanish.

Prince himself is neither a Hispanic nor a Miamian -- he grew up in Los Angeles -- but another Cane executive producer, Cynthia Cidre (she wrote the screenplay for the 1992 film Mambo Kings) was born in Cuba. They were paired up on the project by CBS programming chief Nina Tassler after Prince -- who has produced several family dramas, including AmericanDreams and Life Goes On -- told her he was interested in doing one about a well-to-do Hispanic family.

''I don't think TV has ever done a show about an upscale Latino family,'' Prince said. 'Latino families on television are hardscrabble. We talked about making the family Mexican, Venezuelan, even Guatemalan. Then Nina Tassler told Cynthia, 'You're Cuban, why aren't you writing about Cubans?' ''

In Cane, Smits will be the focal point of an ensemble cast that plays a family ridden with tensions and jealousies. As patriarch Elizondo is dying, he chooses his son-in-law (Smits) rather than one of his own children (Carbonell and Turbay) to run the family business.

''It's a serialized family drama with an epic feel,'' Prince said. "By epic, I mean the size and scope of Dallas in the old days, or miniseries like Rich Man, Poor Man and North & South. ''

The pilot episode of the series was shot in March, with cast and crew working two days in Miami. The producers plan to return to South Florida on a schedule similar to that of CSI: Miami, taping here about two weeks out of every eight.

''We want to use a lot of Florida locations -- South Beach, the Intracoastal, sugar fields, all kinds of stuff,'' Prince said. "We want the sky to look like a Florida sky and the water to look like Florida water. Florida's different -- we can't shoot the Intracoastal in Long Beach. Well, I guess we could, but it would look ridiculous.''

Along with the local scenery, Prince wants to use local talent: He's talking to Gloria and Emilio Estefan about working on the show's soundtrack. Because one of the characters will own a South Beach club, music will play an important role in Cane.

In addition to Cane, CBS announced six other new shows -- three dramas, a comedy, a game show and a reality series called Kid Nation in which 40 young people try to create a new society in a New Mexican ghost town.

The dramas include Moonlight, about a vampire who falls in love with a mortal reporter; Viva Laughlin, based on a hit British TV series about a fly-by-night businessman who opens a casino; and Swingtown, a mid-season replacement series about sexual shenanigans in a mid-1970s Chicago suburb.

The lone comedy is The Big Bang Theory, in which two computer geeks try to improve their love lives by seeking advice from a hottie waitress played by Kaley Cuoco of 8 Simple Rules.

For a network that has depended on a steady diet of crime shows like CSI and Without A Trace, the new dramas had an unusual edge. ''I don't think a lot of people thought we would actually really first produce the pilots and then actually put them on the schedule,'' said programming chief Tassler. "We wanted to stir things up, and that's what we did.''


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