CubaNews / December 2004
By Larry Luxner
Business and political leaders who favor an end to the embargo against Cuba recently made their case in Tampa, against a backdrop of ever-increasing White House hostility toward the Castro regime.
The National Summit on Cuba, held Oct. 8 at the University of Tampa, attracted over 250 academics, politicians, executives and others ranging from Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio to Ret. Gen. Jon Sheehan, former supreme allied commander of NATO’s Atlantic Command.
In addition, two members of the House, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA), as well as Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) addressed delegates by phone from Washing-ton to share their views on the likelihood of a travel ban getting through Congress in 2005.
“Progress will not occur overnight,” Delahunt said. “I think we will see incremental change over the course of the next legislative session. Much of it is being driven by the changing dynamics in South Florida. There clearly seems to be the emergence of a new realization that if change is to occur in Cuba, we have to change the policy.”
Flake agreed, telling delegates that “people in Arizona and everywhere realize this is an issue of freedom, and these sanctions are not doing much to curtail Castro from putting people in jail and doing what he’s always done. This debate isn’t just restricted to South Florida or the Cuban-American community. It implicates every single American citizen, and it’s our responsibility that we protect our constitutional rights.”
Added Craig: “We will pass a bill [lifting the travel ban] in 2005, and it will be put on the president’s desk. That will be a watershed event,” he said. “Our record of success around the world with former and existing communist governments was to engage, not to isolate, because isolation, unless it is total, doesn’t benefit anyone, and tragically damages those who are the victims of it.”
The summit was the third of its kind — previous summits having been held in Washing-ton (2002) and Miami (2003). It was co-sponsored by the Alliance For Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, Americans For Humanitarian Trade With Cuba, the Florida-Cuba Business Council and the World Policy Institute.
The WPI also co-sponsored a Washington conference in 2000 entitled “The Domestic Impact of Unilateral Food and Medical Sanctions: Case Study Cuba.”
Nearly all the speakers at the Tampa event advocated a relaxation of current U.S. policy toward Cuba, though a handful argued for even greater restrictions.
Frank Calzón, founder of the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba, aroused passions when he attacked previous speakers for encouraging U.S. travel to Cuba at the expense of the Cuban people.
“The whole issue of political rights is irrelevant,” he said. “When an American tourist stays in a hotel where only tourists are allowed, that American is subsidizing tourism apartheid. Cubans get paid only $15 a month. If a Cuban whispers a word about forming a labor union, he’s fired and goes to prison. That should also be part of the discussion.”
Calzón also criticized U.S. executives for signing memos of understanding (MOUs) with Cuban food purchasing entity Alimport.
“In order to do business with Castro, you have to sign an agreement saying you will become an apologist for his regime. Sysco just cancelled a $500,000 contract because they refused to go along with that.”
Yet Cuba consultant Kirby Jones countered that argument, telling Calzón that “about 20 MOUs have been signed between Cuba and various states, ports and agencies, and there has never been a conversation which has tied the signing of a MOU to doing trade. The facts speak to that. One state did sign a MOU for $50 million, and not a single product has been sold from that state. There are states which have refused to sign, whose companies are selling to Cuba. It just so happens that it’s in their interest to have trade with Cuba.”
Jay Brickman, vice-president for Cuban and Mexican services at Crowley Liner Services in Jacksonville, Fla., said his company, which has been sailing to Cuba since 1954, began to restudy the Cuban market in 1978.
“We made a conscious commitment, we did studies, we made contacts,” he said. “In December 2001, when transportation was necessary, Crowley was at the forefront. Persistence is imperative. It’s really important to be flexible. Things don’t always work the way you want them. That’s true in Cuba, it’s true in Brazil, and it’s true in the United States.”
Brickman told summit participants that Cuba isn’t an easy place to do business. “If it’s not important to you or your company to be there, then it’s probably not where you want to invest your efforts. It takes time and money to make the contacts, and a good deal of patience. If it’s not worth the effort, your company will simply not support you.”
One entity that has signed an MOU with Alimport is the Alabama State Port Authority, based in Mobile. Cuban-born María Conchita Méndez, the agency’s director for Latin America, said the entire Gulf Coast would benefit from an end to the embargo.
“Castro is a given, but you have to put him aside and ignore him, and look at the Cuban people,” said Méndez, whose uncle spent 26 years in a Cuban jail. “They’re dying to determine their own destiny. By opening up the door, change will come about. Our policy for the last 40 years has gotten us nowhere.”
Yet much of the information in her presentation was inaccurate.
For one thing, Méndez told her audience that Cuba is the world’s largest nickel producer (it is not), and that if the embargo were lifted, the island would come to represent a potential market of $40-50 billion. This is preposterous, because for that to happen, Cuba would need a per-capita income of at least $35,000 — currently higher than that of any other Caribbean island.
She also said that if tourists were allowed to visit Cuba, “the Bahamas would become a ghost town, and Puerto Rico would be seriously affected because a lot of the island’s pharmaceutical industry would shift to Cuba.”
This is extremely unlikely, because nearly all the drugs manufactured in Puerto Rico are exported to the U.S. mainland, and therefore must be produced under strict supervision by the Food and Drug Administration.
Also, since the production of medicines is capital-intensive rather than labor-intensive, there would be little incentive for large U.S. drug companies to close their billion-dollar factories in Puerto Rico — just to take advantage of Cuba’s lower wages.
So where will the next National Summit on Cuba take place?
John Loggia, WPI’s associate project director, said that in 2005, rather than do one big summit, several conferences will likely take place, focusing on various themes such as agriculture, ports and international issues.
“We have discussions underway with a number of different places,” he said. “Sometimes that’s dictated by the political events of the year. Right now, it’s too early to say.”