CubaNews / May 2005
By Larry Luxner
In March, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco became the fourth governor — and the first one from a southern state — to visit Cuba since the 1959 revolution and meet with Fidel Castro. Her three-day trip was widely supported by those who favor an end to U.S. travel and trade restrictions, and condemned by Cuban-American groups that maintain a hard line against the Castro regime.
On May 10, CubaNews interviewed Blanco, a Democrat, for about half an hour at her office on the 4th floor of the Louisiana state capitol in Baton Rouge. Here are excerpts from that exclusive interview:
Q: Gov. Blanco, what were the most significant achievements resulting from your trip to Cuba?
A: “Our goal was to establish stronger trade opportunities for Louisiana products. We knew that it was important to have presence in order to do that. Our most important accomplishment was to sign agreements for $15 million worth of Louisiana farm and fiber products to be purchased by the Cuban government. We don’t have too many pharmaceutical products, although we are a shipping port, and a great deal of what’s being shipped to Cuba leaves from the port of New Orleans.”
Q: How important can trade with Cuba be as long as this trade is limited only to exports of U.S. food commodities, and not imports of Cuban goods?
A: “We are simply doing whatever our federal government allows. As these rules change, then we may see more opportunities. Even if they don’t change, we still have a very vibrant farm economy. Throughout my public career, I have been to a number of countries around the world. I think it’s very imporant that the state of Louisiana be actively involved in seeking opportunities for our businesses.”
Q: Compared to the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, how significant is the “Cuba potential” for Louisiana?
A: “Because business was not allowed in the past, I think Cuba offers us tremendous sales opportunities. The port of New Orleans and Louisiana used to count Cuba as one of its major trading partners. When the embargo was declared, that was a loss to our farmers. “We would like to reclaim our prominence in their marketplace. Our farmers are the people I care about deeply, and its hard to find opportunities for farmers, especially since the federal government controls so much in a farmer’s life.”
Q. How significant is the fact that you are the first governor of a southern state to not only travel to Cuba but meet with Fidel Castro since the revolution?
A: “I never really thought about it. But I’m certainly not waiting around for any other governors to do our economic development. Louisiana’s economy has been stagnating for a number of years. We’re losing job opportunities. Our chemical corridor was suffering dramatically from the high price of natural gas. The oil and gas industry was one of our most promising industries, and we’ve lost our momentum. There’s still a lot of nervousness in this state.”
Q: What was it like to meet Castro?
A: “It was not my intention, and I certainly respect the feelings and attitudes of Cuban-Americans who objected to that. I understand what they’ve been through. On the other hans, there were other voices who were purely political — and those I live with every day. If it wasn’t Cuba, they’d find something else to scream about.”
Q: Given the political fallout, why did you decide to meet Castro in the end?
A: “I receive a lot of people here, and I know that as a head of state myself, if I don’t reach out to visitors sometimes, it makes them feel awkward.”
Q: How much time did you spend with him?
A: “About two and a half hours. As we were parting, he told us he wished we could have spent more time in Cuba.”
Q: What were your overall impressions of Havana?
A: “You can see the city’s former grandeur. Beautiful buildings are in a state of deterioration. There’s a big need for investment, and they simply don’t have the financial wherewithal. Cuba is a beautiful country with a lot of good people who are poised to see some renewed vigor. I know people here in the U.S. who would would like the freedom to be able to return Cuba to its once-glorious years.”
Q: Could you explain why no meetings were arranged between yourself and prominent dissidents like Oswaldo Payá, even though several dissidents had hoped to meet with you?
A: “I was not on a political mission, and we were trying to not get embroiled in politics. When the invitation did come to us [from Castro], we made it clear that we would not be talking politics. It would just be business.”
Q: Do you think the embargo against Cuba should be unilaterally lifted as long as Castro remains in power?
A: “I don’t see politics allowing that. I don’t see the embargo being lifted unilaterally for a long time, but I think easing into it would be very smart, and those Cuban-Americans who care so deeply about Cuba’s future would benefit in the long run.”
Q. What would you say to Cuban-Americans who feel betrayed by your trip?
A: “That’s an extreme reaction. I have had large numbers of Cuban-Americans come up to say ‘thank you, we needed you to do that.’ It’s been amazing. Every week, someone like that comes up to me. I feel that if communications aren’t opened up early, it will be far more difficult later on.”
Q: Were you asked by the Cuban government at any time to sign a statement urging for an end to the embargo?
A: “We did not make a political trip, and we’re not going to lobby. My role is to build a strong economy for Louisiana. My state has always been behind the curve, and so I have decided to erase all excuses for failure.”
Q: Do you have any regrets about having gone to Cuba?
A: “Not at all. In the long run, this will be beneficial.”