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US Farmers Worried Tensions with Cuba Will Affect Exports - 2003-11-10


Since the United States cracked open the trade embargo on Cuba two years ago to allow farmers to sell agricultural and food products there, American exports to the island nation have been on the rise. Cuba is now the United States' 35th largest agricultural export market, up from 208th just two years ago. However some farmers are concerned that heightened U.S.-Cuba political tensions will affect their exports.

Minnesota farmer Ralph Kaehler says doing business with Cuba is a lesson in working with paranoid, controlling bureaucrats who require loads of unnecessary paperwork at frequent stages of the deal. And he's not talking about the communist government in Havana. "The difficult part has been, for the most part, working with our government: getting visas for Cuban livestock inspectors and veterinarians to come up and inspect the animals like every other country does. That took forever. It's just fighting the politics side of doing business," he says.

Four thirsty black heifers eagerly line up at a trough as Mr. Kaehler turns on the water. "Their offspring will be the ones that go to Cuba in the next couple of years," he says.

Ralph Kaehler and his young sons Seth and Cliff became celebrities for a day last year during Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura's trade mission to Cuba. That's when Cuban President Fidel Castro posed for pictures with them and their bull, and the photos made the front page of newspapers around the world. Since then, Mr. Kaehler has returned to Cuba twice to sell cattle and a high-protein animal feed. Mr. Castro has hosted him both times. Their relationship is amicable enough that the Kaehler family is now on the Cuban leader's holiday greeting list. A New Year's card signed 'Fidel Castro' is proudly displayed in the farmer's kitchen.

Up until this year, this chummy relationship has exemplified US trade with Cuba, a partnership that has brought American farmers and agribusiness as much as half a billion dollars since 2001. Last year, the United States provided over 20 percent of Cuba's agricultural products.

This year, according to experts like John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, that could double. "In 2002, the relationship from a commercial standpoint was leaping from one peak to the next. Every month there were new purchases, U.S. companies were sending representatives down. Members of the House and Senate were going down. Governors were going down. There was a lot of euphoria," he says.

This euphoria peaked at last year's U.S. Food and Agribusiness exhibition in Havana. It produced over $92 million in sales for U.S. businesses. A second exhibition was planned for this coming January. But that was before the Castro government imprisoned more than 70 political dissidents and executed three Cubans caught trying to escape the country last spring. The crackdown has spurred the Bush Administration to further restrict travel to Cuba. As a result, next year's trade fair has been cancelled because exhibitors can not get the necessary travel documents. The Bush Administration is also restricting non-business visits by U.S. schools and non-profit groups.

Economic Council president John Kavulich says the success of last year's exhibition should serve as an example to the president of why further restrictions on Cuba are a bad idea. "Harming lawful business activity isn't the way to harm the Cuban government," he says. "What you're doing is harming the business community. And is that really your target?"

But the Bush Administration isn't alone. Since the arrests and executions, many members of Congress who supported easing trade and travel barriers are re-thinking their position. Minnesota freshman Senator Norm Coleman is among those who have had a change of heart. During his campaign last year, he favored lifting trade and travel barriers on Cuba. After visiting the country this fall, Senator Coleman gave the Bush Administration's stance his support.

Back on his farm, Minnesota farmer Ralph Kaehler says his senator is playing party politics at the expense of Minnesota producers. "I know I look at people that deal with me, if they came and visited me and then started complaining about me, I probably wouldn't be too fired up about working with them again," he says.

Mr. Kaehler says he wonders why members of Congress aren't applying equal pressure on countries like China or Saudi Arabia. Both are U.S. trading partners whose governments have also been criticized for their human rights records. According to Cuba trade expert John Kavulich, these countries are too important to American business interests for the U.S. government to apply the same principles. "The government of China made it very clear to US companies: you support us, or we may have difficulty dealing with you. And that resonates with U.S. company executives. In the case of Cuba, it simply isn't as important economically, yet," he says.

Mr. Kavulich says Cuba's proximity to the United States and its enthusiasm for American products give the country the potential to be an important trading partner. That is, he says, if politics would just get out of the way.

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