CubaNews / January 2005
By Larry Luxner
"Goodbye Havana, hello Tripoli” seems to be the new strategy for Peter Nathan, chief of PWN Exhibicon International.
Nathan, you may remember, is the trade-show organizer who two years ago pulled off the first U.S. food exhibit in Havana since the 1959 revolution.
But Nathan’s attempts to repeat the highly successful show ended in frustration after he encountered what he calls “politically motivated” opposition from the White House.
“After the agricultural show in September 2002, I reapplied immediately for a license from OFAC [Office of Foreign Assets Control]. They denied me the license on two or three different occasions over the next six months,” Nathan said in a phone conversation from his office in Westport, Ct.
“Each time, I was told it was officially because [the event] was not consistent with U.S. policy on Cuba. But indirectly, unofficially, I was told the show was so successful, and that Fidel Castro was so pleased with it, that it embarrassed the Bush administration.”
In fact, Nathan’s trade fair — attended by over 750 U.S. business executives — also attracted 20,000 Cubans eager to see and taste everything from California raisins to Wisconsin cheese.
Many left the Pabexpo convention center toting plastic shopping bags filled with Spam, Land o’ Lakes margarine, Wrigley’s chewing gum and other U.S. brands not sold in Cuba since the revolution.
As a result of the show, Cuban state food purchasing agency Alimport signed $95 million in contracts with U.S. food companies.
Coincidentally, the White House unveiled tough new travel restrictions against U.S. boaters sailing to Cuba on Feb. 26, 2004 — the same day OFAC lifted the long-standing travel ban against Libya. That followed a declaration by Libya’s dictator, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, renouncing terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
Qaddafi had already agreed to compensate families of those who died when Pan Am 103 was destroyed over Lockerbie — a terrorist act blamed on secret Libyan agents.
Today, there’s a Libyan Interests Section in Washington, and a U.S. Interests Section in Tripoli, and it seems only a matter of time before full diplomatic relations are restored.
Meanwhile, U.S. trade delegations have been streaming to Tripoli, and Texas oilmen are already in the North African desert nation, eager to get the crude flowing again.
“I’m interested in Libya for basically the same reasons I was interested in Cuba,” Nathan told us. “Initially, the U.S. relaxed the embargo with Cuba for medical products, and later agricultural goods. When I read last March that the U.S. was also relaxing its embargo against Libya, I thought it was time to investigate the opportunities.”
Nathan, 71, has been in the exhibition business for 47 years. He organized the first U.S. trade show in the Soviet Union in 1971, and the first U.S. trade show in China in 1980.
A similar trade show is planned for Libya next summer, and has already been certified by the U.S. Commerce Department.
Nathan has been to Libya twice, and he says the Libyans, like the Cubans, welcome American visitors with open arms.
“Tripoli is very interesting, actually somewhat like Havana; rundown, nice people, right on a major body of water. However, trying to do business in Libya makes Cuba seem like a piece of cake,” he said.
“They are very disorganized, and there’s plenty of infighting. Getting a visa — even if you’ve been there before — is a real trial, a headache. But there are many opportunities which I hope can work in my favor.”