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Coffee with a cause
CubaNews / July 2002

Larry Luxner

Veteran coffee roaster Paul Katzeff thinks the 40-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba is illogical, impractical and immoral.

That's why Katzeff, CEO of Thanksgiving Coffee Co. in Fort Bragg, Calif., recently launched a new line of beans called "End the Embargo Coffee." The brand, which retails in selected U.S. specialty shops for roughly $9.50 per 12-oz. package, brazenly features a picture of revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara in his trademark beret, along with a photo of Fidel Castro embracing Pope John Paul II and six paragraphs of text explaining why the embargo is morally bankrupt.

Yet for all his idealism, Katzeff isn't naive.

The 64-year-old New York native, whose company made a name for itself in the 1980s by circumventing the U.S. embargo on Nicaraguan coffee, says he has no intention of violating the law by trying to import Cuban coffee beans.

As a result, the coffee inside bags of "End the Embargo Coffee" is actually from Nicaragua, Mexico and Guatemala, countries he says "have also endured the effects of unjust U.S. economic policies" through the years.

"My purpose is not to risk everything I've worked for over 30 years. That would be absurd," Katzeff told CubaNews. "The point is that someday, there will be Cuban coffee in that package."

So what's the difference between challenging U.S. law during the Reagan years and challenging it today?

"When I broke the embargo on Nicaragua," he explains, "there was a loophole, and I used it. The loophole was that if you shipped green Nicaraguan coffee to another country like Canada and they roasted it there, the product became Canadian. Under Helms-Burton, that loophole has been closed."

Thanksgiving Coffee, founded 30 years ago, roasts a million pounds of coffee annually from 15 countries, but has been marketing "End the Embargo" coffee only since 1998. The campaign was cobbled together by a team of four summer interns, Katzeff recalled proudly.

"One of our projects was to bring awareness to U.S. consumers on Cuba issues. So these four students created 'End the Embargo Coffee.' They started the idea from scratch and linked us to Global Exchange, which was the first benefactor of this project. So for the first three years, Global Exchange received 15¢ [about half the profits] for every package we sold."

About a year ago, Thanksgiving Coffee made a switch and decided to promote a different organization, the US-Cuba Sister Cities Association -- despite intense pressure from Cuban exiles who accuse such groups of giving the Castro regime credibility.

"Why doesn't [Katzeff] send his money instead to an organization that wants to get rid of Fidel Castro? Then there wouldn't be an embargo," suggests Leonor Gavinia-Valls, vice-president of F. Gavinia & Sons in Vernon, Calif. In 1960, the Gavinia family was forced to flee Cuba after the Castro regime nationalized its extensive coffee holdings.

"Having a picture of Che on the label is completely out of line," she adds. "Che was a communist, and there's no freedom whatsoever in Cuba."

The Gavinia family isn't alone in its resentment of Katzeff and his political leanings.

In 2000, the Specialty Coffee Association of America reached an agreement with the U.S. Agency for International Development to help improve the quality of coffee beans in Third World countries. "When Jesse Helms found out that I was president of the SCAA," said Katzeff, "he directed USAID not to sign the memorandum if my signature was going to be on the document."

But, like Castro himself, the aging revolutionary is unlikely to be dissuaded.

"I get irate calls from South Florida all the time," he says. "I tell these people that isolating Cuba is not the answer. They're only hurting their own families."

Adds Johanna Schultz, the company's director of social and environmental policy: "I heard that a woman walked into a store in Wisconsin and started crying hysterically when she saw the image of Ché Guevarra. She thought he was a terrorist. They had to take her into a back room to calm her down."

Schultz says that only encourages her company because "it gets people thinking about why we can't have Cuban coffee in the United States."

Thanksgiving sells around 30,000 packages of "End the Embargo" Coffee a year. That translates into roughly $200,000 at wholesale prices, and $280,000 at the retail level.

"These are in the top 15 of our packaged coffees," says Katzeff, who has a master's degree in social work and runs the $5 million company with his wife, Joan, and 53 employees. He said around 60% of Thanksgiving's customers are in northern California, with the other 40% spread across the nation.

"Coffee is one of the best mediums for carrying a message. It's America's national drink," he explained. "A long time ago, when we were breaking the embargo on Nicaraguan coffee, Daniel Nuñez, president of Nicaragua's national farmworkers union, told me he wanted the coffee to be as sweet as the revolution. But you cannot sell a revolution on junk. You must have good coffee."

To satisfy his largely upscale, socially responsible market, Katzeff offers three varieties of certified organic, shade-grown coffees: dark roast, light roast and decaffeinated. (Customers can buy the dark and light roasts online for $9.50 a package; the decaf sells for $11.35.) All are cultivated without the use of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers and harvested by small farmers' cooperatives in Nicaragua, Guatemala and southern Mexico.

Someday, however, Katzeff would like to sign his own twinning agreement with coffee cooperatives in the province of Santiago de Cuba, allowing Thanksgiving to build a sustained relationship with counterparts on the island.

"Cuban coffee is excellent, like the quality of Cuban cigars. But that's deteriorated, and now the best cigars in the world come from the Dominican Republic," he says. "On the other hand, Cuba's coffee potential is phenomenal. The climate hasn't changed. The soil hasn't changed. And it's all organic."

Katzeff says his project director, Nick Hoskins, has been to Cuba many times, and that his company has already begun developing contacts in Cuba's coffee-growing regions.

"I'm not doing this to make money. We really believe in this," he says. "This company's history as an icon for social justice and environmental sensitivity is long and deep. We're trying to create models that other companies can use and benefit from."

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