CubaNews / December 2004
By Larry Luxner
Washington consultant Kirby Jones has been fascinated with Cuba ever since his first trip there in 1974, when he interviewed Fidel Castro for 13 hours over a five-day period for CBS News.
Thirty years later, Jones is still obsessed with Cuba. He’s lost count of how many times he’s been to the island since then, though the number is clearly in the hundreds. And he makes no bones whatsoever about his friendship with Castro. Photos of Jones shaking hands with the Maximum Leader over the years fill the walls of his tiny office, located on the sixth floor of a building which also happens to house the European Union’s Washington headquarters.
CubaNews spent about an hour last month interviewing Jones, just as reports were beginning to appear about a possible ruling by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) that would make it harder for U.S. companies to export food to Cuba.
“They say that American companies have been operating in violation of the licenses which call for payment in advance,” he said. “I first heard about this in Havana, when a client of mine had his funds frozen by his bank in California. We’re dealing with big money here. Maybe a big company can absorb $1 million worth of cash-flow problems, but smaller ones cannot.”
In practice, he said, containers are loaded, the ship takes off for Havana, and meanwhile, the money is sent to the food exporter. But sometimes, particularly on weekends, the ship arrives in Havana and is stuck there, so there’s a 72-hour gap.
“For some reason, OFAC and others say that’s de facto credit. But this has been going on for three years, and in international trade, this process is not unusual for business conducted on a cash basis. There is no credit being extended in any way.”
Jones, 63, is a native of New York’s West-chester County. He went to school at the University of North Carolina and graduated in 1963. He then joined the Peace Corps and volunteered in the Dominican Republic, working in Santo Domingo’s urban slums.
After that, Jones did anti-poverty work in Greensboro, N.C., and in 1968 joined Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Perhaps his biggest claim to fame in those years was being George McGovern’s press secretary during the 1972 presidential campaign.
As a result, Jones ended up on the official Nixon enemy list — along with several hundred others including journalists, members of Congress, actors, writers and Democratic campaign officials.
But at the same time, both he and his business partner, Frank Mankiewicz, used their first visit in 1974 to take secret notes to Castro on behalf of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his deputy, Lawrence Eagleburger.
“For the next few years, I acted as a back-channel messenger, meeting with Eagleburger before and after almost all my visits in the 1970s, until the establishment of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana,” he told CubaNews.
Jones set up his consulting firm in 1975, naming it Alamar Associates after a housing project that was rising just east of Havana at the time. That same year, he took his first client down to Cuba, a Minneapolis grain company called IS Joseph Co.
Since then, he’s brought down 500 to 600 companies, many of them on large delegations.
“There’s real business to be done, although there was real business in the 1970s when I first started,” said Jones. “Then Reagan came in and all that ended.”
Until passage of TSRA, that is. The 2000 Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act lets U.S. businesses sell food to Cuba’s Alimport on a cash-only basis, though the law is open to some degree of interpretation.
So far, according to Jones, Alimport has contracted for $1.04 billion in U.S. agricultural commodities and has actually paid $932 million in cash for those commodities. The vast majority of that consists of food staples such as chicken, rice, corn, soybeans and wheat.
“If a company is selling rice, they probably don’t need me. I’m not really dealing with the commodities. I’m dealing with smaller and medium-size companies who can provide the same quality goods but can move more quickly and offer prices that are very competitive,” said Jones.
“I work on a retainer basis, plus a success fee, but I don’t talk about fees,” he told us. “It varies from company to company, because each product is different. For example, introducing a new product into the peso market is very easy. There aren’t that many products, and most prices are set by the market, so it’s not consumer-driven.
“But if you’re dealing with corn flakes and jam for the hard-currency market, you’ll have to meet with Cubalse, TRD, Cimex, etc. If you’re introducing a product which they have not used before, they’ll want to taste it, smell it, feel it, since the Cubans have nothing to measure it against.”
Jones visits Cuba an average 15 times a year, essentially opening doors for companies that have no idea where to start.
“If you’re Company X who has never been to Cuba but knows they’re open for agricultural products, I can make it easier for you.
“Can I help you get a license from the Treasury Department? Yes. Can I get visas and get you down there, do all the logistics, and put you in front of the people you’ll need to meet? Yes. Will you have to do any work to find out who’s the right person? No.”
Jones said he’s negotiated and sold chicken, fresh produce, chewing gum, wood products and organic fertilizers on behalf of his clients, none of whom he would reveal (except for Wrigley’s, the chewing-gum maker).
“The companies that I’ve talked to are very honest in saying it’s great to get paid in cash. But they know it's abnormal,” he said.
“The normal way is financing, and every one of these companies expects this to happen. If trade were normal and both parties could negotiate whatever credit terms they want, it would allow U.S. companies to be more competitive.”
He added: “Buying rice in the U.S. as opposed to buying it from Thailand is a tre-mendous savings. The Cubans will save in storage costs, and instead of 45 days, the rice arrives in 36 hours, so they can buy smaller quantities on a regular basis instead of huge quantities on an irregular basis.”
Jones said his friendship with Castro is a big plus when it comes to negotiating on behalf of his clients.
“I’ve known Fidel for 30 years. I’ve taken my parents and my kids down to see him,” he said. “The first thing that comes to mind is, if you were stuck in an airport for 10 hours waiting for your flight, he’d be a great guy to have beers with.
“He’s a multilayered and multifaceted person. He can give a speech at 10 a.m. and rail against the evils of capitalism, and at 2 in the afternoon sign another joint venture. Both are Fidel Castro. Both are equally honest dimensions of the same guy.”
And despite his well-known opposition to current U.S. policy towards Cuba, Jones says he has no problem with anyone in the Treasury or Commerce departments; his OFAC license to travel there keeps getting renewed year after year.
“I think there’s an interest sparked by the food trade, tempered by the antagonism of the Bush administration, which has taken U.S.-Cuba friction to a new level,” he said.
Asked whether a victory by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry would have meant a significant change in U.S. Cuba policy, Jones had this to say:
“If Kerry had won the election, you would have seen a change, not only because it’s Kerry vs. Bush, but because there would have been a change in mid-level political appointees like Dan Fisk and Roger Noriega. That operational level, which is ideologically driven, most likely would have been replaced.”
Jones regrets that he “sees no indication” of the Bush administration softening its tone.
“I know from talking to people on the Hill that bills will be introduced very quickly in the House and Senate [seeking to end restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba],” he said.
“The intensity to take on the travel ban is stronger than last year. People in the Cuba Working Group are strategizing on how best to approach this.”
Obviously, Jones has made a career out of opening doors to a forbidden country. So we asked him whether an end to the embargo would put him out of business.
“Quite the contrary,” he replied. “Our niche is not based on the embargo. Our work is getting ready for business. In terms of the amount of potential business between the U.S. and Cuba, it’s barely started. You look at the tourism sector, golf courses, the service industry, computers, renovations and infrastructure... all that is waiting to happen.”