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US Food Exhibition in Cuba Meets With Mixed Reactions - 2002-09-27

Representatives of more than 280 U.S. food producers and agricultural interests are in Havana, Cuba, for a five-day trade fair, the first such event in four decades. Organizers of the event hope to boost U.S. food exports to Cuba, and add pressure for an end to the long-standing U.S. economic embargo.

Ralph Kaeler, a rancher from the U.S. state of Minnesota, showed off cattle and other livestock to Cuban President Fidel Castro, who shed his customary military uniform for a business suit on Thursday. Mr. Kaeler said he was struck by the Cuban leader's knowledge of farm animals and enjoyed the exchange. "As a former livestock man, he [Castro] asked a lot of questions about production, how old they [the cattle] were - telling us how his [Cuba's] animals compare. And so [there was] a lot of old cowboy talk," he said.

Two years ago, the United States eased its decades-old trade embargo to allow food sales to Cuba, so long as the Castro government pays with cash for the goods. To date, Cuba has bought approximately $140 million worth of U.S. agricultural goods - a figure that is expected to swell to a $250 million next year.

At the Havana trade fair, exhibitors range from large U.S. agricultural conglomerates to individual companies selling everything from pastries to chewing gum.

But where U.S. agricultural producers see an opportunity to increase their business, others, particularly Cuban exiles in Miami, see pitfalls. Mariela Ferretti, a spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation, said, "The whole thing smacks of [sounds like] a major hoax. Fidel Castro is perpetrating a fraud on American businessmen, and American businessmen are allowing themselves to be pulled into this fraud."

Ms. Ferretti says Fidel Castro is, at best, an unreliable trading partner. She says Cuba has defaulted on billions of dollars owed to other nations and that it is only a matter of time before the Castro government seeks credit arrangements from U.S. firms.

President Castro has said he would "guarantee payment" if U.S. credits were ever extended. But Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, who traveled to Havana for the trade show, shook his head when asked if Cuba should get U.S. loans for food purchases. "Not right now. Credit is like anything else: you have to earn it," he said.

Mr. Ventura does support expanding food sales to Cuba and says he hopes the U.S. economic embargo will one day be scrapped. He says American sanctions have failed to bring democratic change to the island, and that outside pressure is counterproductive. "At my age of 51, I like friends better than enemies. You are not going to reform a country [from the outside]; they have to reform themselves," said Jesse Ventura.

Not so, according to the Cuban American National Foundation. Spokeswoman Mariela Ferretti says trade with Cuba only serves to enrich Fidel Castro, since foreign goods are typically sold in government-operated "dollar-only" stores for a profit. Ms. Ferretti says such stores cater to tourists and a small cadre of Cubans who have access to U.S. dollars. She says the average Cuban will never see American-style food in their cupboards - and that it would do them little good even if they did.

"I have never heard that bubble gum brought democracy to anyone," added Ms. Ferretti. "The Cuban people do not need to chew gum. What they need is freedom and democracy. What this [food sales] is going to do in the long run is put money in Fidel Castro's coffers - money that goes to fund a state security apparatus. And all the bubble gum in the world is not going to change that."

But trade fair participants say they are hopeful that increased U.S. food sales to Cuba will bring beneficial results - including profits.