11/15/2007 – Printed in the NATIONAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
If you travel abroad, you can readily see the lunacy of America’s Cuba policy.
I saw the lunacy of the policy for myself recently when I vacationed in Cape Town, South Africa. A friend and I went to the Table Bay Hotel for drinks. She ordered a rum and Coke, and the bartender offered a long list of rums, including Havana Gold. She jokingly asked if the Havana Gold was actuallyproduced and bottled in Cuba or was it from the Dominican Republic or somewhere else in the Caribbean.
The bartender was surprised by the question and said, of course, the rum was from Cuba. We explained America’s sanctions against Cuban rum and other goods. The bartender shook his head.
That evening, I had dinner at the Riboville Restaurant in Cape Town and was given my pick, free of charge, of a Cuban cigar from a collection of fine brands. I don’t smoke, so I declined the offer.
A few days later, I visited a black township in Cape Town and learned that several of the doctors in the clinic were from Cuba. I was told that Cuba and South Africa have what is referred to as a “comprehensive cooperation program in health and education sectors,” which includes biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
“Cooperation in the health sector has been very stable, both Cuban doctors in South Africa and with South Africa training some of our students in Cuba, the Cuban government is providing 60 scholarships for South African students,” the South African foreign minister said.
George W. Bush’s recent speech calling on the world to isolate Cuba will not affect South Africa’s trade agreements and exchange programs with Cuba, the foreign minister said.
As Bush was fulminating against the island nation, a delegation of Cuban farmers were arriving in Cape Town to share irrigation and growing practices with their South African peers.
South Africa isn’t alone in defying the United States’ outdated Cuba policy. Even Americans, such as John Parke Wright, a Florida cattle rancher, Gov. Dave Heineman, a Nebraska Republican, Ralph Kaehler, a Minnesota cattle feed producer, and Ron Sparks, Alabama’s agriculture commissioner, are ignoring Bush’s call to isolate Cuba.
Last week, these men and hundreds of other U.S. farmers, state officials and business leaders traveled to Cuba to attend the Havana International Fair. The New York Times reports that these Americans were in Havana to nail down part of the $1.6-billion the Castro government spends annually to import wheat, beans, sugar, poultry and beans and other staples.
Asked about Alabama’s trade with Cuba, Sparks said, “It’s helped our economy. It’s helped our farmers. I don’t talk national policy.”
Asked about Nebraska’s deals with Cuba, Gov. Heineman said: “I will say expanding trade relationships is good for Nebraska and altogether good for America.”
Many Americans believe that the nation has no trade with Cuba, but since 2000, when President Clinton lifted a 40-year ban on selling food to Cuba, agribusinesses, such as Perdue, Cargill and Pilgrim’s Pride, have been selling goods to the Communist nation, and they have been sending representatives to the 25-year-old Havana fair for the last six years.
Most members of the European Union are doing business in Havana and have no plans to accept current American sanctions, nor do they plan to increase sanctions.
Certainly, sanctions have squeezed the island nation’s economy, but they have not destroyed it. Some experts argue that the sanctions actually helpFidel Castro hold on to power. Many U.S. businesspeople say that normalizing trade with Cuba and easing travel restrictions for American citizens would speed up the end of Castro’s iron-fisted rule.
Doubtless, normal trade with Cuba would be a boon to Florida businesses. But too many of the state’s Republicans in Tallahassee support Bush’s wrong-headed policy as a means of pandering to the aging Cuban voting bloc in South Florida and the Tampa Bay area.
Perhaps the next president will understand that while the embargo is intended to punish the Communist regime in Cuba, it’s robbing American farmers, manufacturers and service providers of a valuable international trade partner.
I had to go to South Africa to see the positive side of general trade with Cuba.