Minnesota business leaders seek markets in tour of CubaA group of delegates from the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership Program traveled to Cuba to learn about its economy, agricultural system and the impact of the U.S. embargo that was imposed after the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
By: Candace Renalls, Duluth News Tribune
Fields worked with oxen and makeshift plows. Cars from the 1950s. Rationing and long lines.
They’re all part of today’s Cuba, a delegation from Minnesota discovered last month.
They also learned that poverty is widespread in Cuba, commodities are scarce, class divisions are pronounced and billboards display political messages, not advertising.
The group of 32 delegates from the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership Program, or MARL, got special permission to visit the communist country to learn about its economy, agricultural system and the impact of the U.S. embargo that was imposed after the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
“A lot of us were surprised by the reception we received from normal people,” said Tim Alcorn, MARL’s executive director. “With the relations between the countries being so strained for so long, we didn’t know how hospitable Cubans would be to Americans.”
Instead, they found Cubans to be friendly and curious about the United States but they didn’t talk about politics.
The international mission’s main goal was to see what kind of trade opportunities existed for Minnesota, Alcorn said.
Coincidentally, while the group was in Cuba, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson was introducing a bill in Congress to ease the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and end the travel ban, though it has eased up under President Obama.
If the embargo is relaxed — Alcorn hoped to discover — what could Minnesota export to Cuba that’s in short supply there?
He saw several opportunities. He saw a need for more cooking oil, which is rationed out to the population.
But Alcorn saw the greatest opportunity in food that goes to Cuba’s finer hotels and restaurants, including beef. Although killing cows in Cuba is illegal, beef is imported to serve to foreign visitors.
“In hotels, access to good beef is limited, so there would be opportunity there,” Alcorn said. “They have a taste for cheese already, but it’s expensive. And Minnesota is a good producer of cheese.”
Through the trip, the delegates — all involved with agricultural production or related businesses — developed a better understanding of how the embargo works.
“We thought they could get [goods] from somewhere else,” Alcorn said. “But the U.S. leverages other countries to not do business with Cuba. If you want to do business with the United States, they can’t do business with Cuba.”
While shipping is allowed, money can’t go directly from Cuba to the United States. It has to be cash-in-advance and go through a foreign bank, a requirement that would end under Peterson’s bill. Cruise ships can visit Cuba, but afterwards they can’t dock in the U.S port for six months.
The embargo has been extremely effective in denying access to technology, including automobiles and farm equipment, Alcorn said.
According to Alcorn and delegate Dave Chura of Duluth:
In Cuba, small private farmers still plow their fields with oxen and horses while the big state-owned farms use tractors, albeit old ones, for growing tobacco, sugar cane and produce.
Mostly older cars and trucks are seen, because people were allowed to keep them after the revolution. New ones are expensive, in short supply and can’t be totally owned by the average citizen. Cuban people go to great lengths to keep them running, even without access to replacement parts and tires.
Cubans line up for public transportation and for their monthly rations of rice, sugar, coffee, bread and powdered milk for children. While some can afford to shop at farmers markets, few can afford the more expensive grocery stores where some meat is available. Store shelves offer little variety and sparse offerings. And the rare hardware store might offer only old, used parts.
“Castro would want you to believe U.S. policy is the reason they live like they do,” said Chura, who is executive director of the Minnesota Logger Education Program. But Cuba has been greatly hurt by the loss of the $5 billion annually it got from the Soviet Union before its collapse in the late 1980s, he noted.
“What’s amazing is, it’s not the poorest place in the world, but there’s no reason they couldn’t be more prosperous than they are,” Chura said. “Their freedoms are so restricted. Freedom to be entrepreneurs, freedom to express their thoughts and feelings.”
Despite the experience, Chura has mixed feelings about lifting the embargo.
“Certainly we want to make sure we’re able to provide them with products that can help them meet basic humanitarian needs,” he said. “At the same time, we don’t want to help them prop up and support the existing government.”