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Cuba's U.S. grocery bill hits $500m as Fla. rancher ships 148 cows to Cuba
CubaNews / September 2003

By Larry Luxner

Since December 2001, Cuba has imported half a billion dollars worth of food, forestry and other agricultural products from the United States.

That’s the word from Pedro Alvarez, chief of Cuban food purchasing agency Alimport, speaking at an Aug. 21 press conference in Havana.

Of this total, said Alvarez, $380 million has already been paid in cash by the Cuban government. He said that between January and August 2003, trade between the United States and Cuba exceeded $200 million — up from $180 million during the preceding 13 months.

According to Alvarez, Alimport’s purchases total 2.1 million tons of merchandise, of which 1.7 million tons has already been imported in 184 cargo shipments — 70% of them on U.S. vessels or those hired by U.S. companies.

All this trade has been made possible by the Trade Sanctions and Reform Export Enhance-ment Act of 2000, which authorizes U.S. companies to sell food commodities to the Cuban government on a cash-basis only.

Seated next to Alvarez at the conference was Ron Sparks, Alabama’s commissioner of agriculture and industry, who signed three protocols with his Cuban counterpart during his visit.

The documents include a letter of understand-ing between Alimport and the port of Mobile, which will start shipping products to Cuba in early September; a similar pact was forged between Alimport and the Texas port of Corpus Christi (see CubaNews, August 2003, page 3).

Alimport also agreed to buy 10,000 tons of Alabama frozen chicken and dairy products. The deals are likely to boost the Dixie State’s food exports to Cuba from $500,000 in the last year and a half to possibly $10 million a year.

“This is the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial relationship between Cuba and the state of Alabama,” said Sparks.

María Conchita Mendez of the Alabama De--partment of Agriculture noted that the founder of Mobile — Pierre LeMoyne d’Iberville — is buried in Havana, and that 10 years ago, the two ports agreed to become sister cities.

“We are committed to work with our congressmen to pursue the lifting of trade and travel barriers and the normalization of relations with Cuba,” Mendez said. “The key to the agreements signed today is not so much in quantity as in the impact on future trade.”

That potential trade — which could involve as many as 16 ships a week steaming from Mobile to Havana — also implies the opening of many third-company representative offices.

Meanwhile, Florida rancher and businessman John Parke Wright announced that his company, J.P. Wright & Co., has delivered 148 dairy cattle to Cuba, in what’s being called the largest successful shipment of cows to Cuba since the 1959 revolution.

The shipment — the latest of several summer deliveries — has boosted to nearly 450 the number of U.S. cattle sent to Cuba since TSRA went into effect nearly two years ago.

Wright, 53, said the transaction is worth around $300,000, and calls it “a significant step toward restoring positive relations between the peoples of Cuba and Florida.”

“This deal is basic to the production of milk and dairy products,” Wright told CubaNews in a phone interview from his headquarters in Naples, Fla. “Every month, I’m traveling across Cuba and meeting with farmers, and there’s a real need for agricultural cooperation between Cuba and Florida. This is not a luxury by any means.”

The rancher — whose ancestors began exporting cattle to Cuba in 1858 — said his cows were sent in two shipments: a first group of 20 from Port Everglades, Fla., and a second group of 128 from Jacksonville.

The 92 Jersey-bred heifers from Pennsyl-vania and 36 New York Holsteins in that 2nd group are now being quarantined on a ranch outside Havana, and will soon go into milk production at nearby Hacienda Las Naranjas.

Wright said a Holstein is typically worth about $1,200, but “by the time you export it, it’s $1,800 or $1,900.” Likewise, a pregnant Jersey from Maryland or Pennsylvania could be worth as much as $2,200.

However, Wright insisted that “this is not a question of profit. I’m a practical businessman, but this deal is based on humanitarian beliefs. Some [exiles] are trying to starve the Cuban people. I defy them as Floridians to do this. Forget about governments. That’s where I’m coming from.”

Wright, who celebrated the deal by riding horses, smoking premium cigars and posing for pictures with Fidel Castro’s older brother, Ramón “Mongo” Castro Ruz, said he’s confident there will be many more Florida shipments to come — though it’ll be years before the state exports 100,000 head of beef cattle annually to Cuba, as Wright’s ancestors did in the 1870s.

“I have a great amount of gratitude to the U.S. Treasury Department, the Department of Commerce and the USDA,” he said. “All three helped me to smoothly export these cattle to Cuba: Treasury for the license to travel, Commerce for the license to export, and USDA for all the protocols theyhave been able to work out with the Cuban authorities.”

Arthur Savage, president of Tampa-based A.R. Savage & Son Inc., advised Wright on letters of credit, payment issues and shipping arrangements with Jacksonville-based Crowley Liner Services, which has carried more U.S. food commodities to Cuba since December 2001 than any other shipping line.

“We’ve had three shipments [of dicalcium phosphate] from Tampa, and have also represented the Cubans on a grain shipment that was loaded in Texas and Louisiana, and also on a grain shipment that went out of Virginia,” said Savage, whose company also operates a container terminal and a trucking firm.

“We see Cuba as a huge part of our future,” said the businessman, who was recently asked by the Tampa Chamber of Commerce to create and head a new Cuba Task Force.

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