CubaNews / May 2005
By Larry Luxner
From Alabama to Vermont, state governments are enthusiastically sending trade missions down to Havana, eager to do business with the Castro regime despite opposition from the Bush administration.
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who visited Cuba in mid-March, returned with a commitment from Cuban purchasing agency Alimport to buy $15 million worth of Louisiana food and timber products.
Likewise, North Dakota officials say Cuba has signed a contract to buy 5,000 metric tons of dry peas for immediate delivery — a deal worth nearly $1 million for the state.
Eric Bartsch, executive director of the North Dakota Dry Pea and Lentil Association, says that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“The biggest thing out of that meeting was their commitment to buy 20,000 metric tons in the next 18 months,” Bartsch told the Minot Daily News. “It’s a deal similar to last fall, and it’s an intent to buy, but now export companies can start negotiating for sales.” Cuba purchased 20,000 tons of North Dakota peas last year. The country has purchased $5.5 million worth of North Dakota dry peas and beans in the past five years.
Greg Johnson, president of Premier Pulses International Inc. in Minot, said the initial 5,000-ton sale will be green peas.
Future shipments may be yellow or green peas or both, depending on an agreed-upon price prior to shipment.
Pedro Alvarez, chief of the Cuban food purchasing agency Alimport, told the delegation his entity would pursue contracts with North Dakota companies for sunflowers, beef, malt barley, soybeans, chickpeas, lentils, potatoes and other commodities.
“We generated some sales and spent a considerable amount of time on other products," said Johnson. “That includes flax, wheat, some mustard and beef genetics.”
North Dakota is the No. 1 dry-pea producer in the United States, with 315,322 acres of peas under cultivation.
Alimport has also signed a general promise to buy food — mainly apples, milk powder, mayonnaise and livestock — from Vermont. The agreement, signed earlier this month by Alvarez and Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords, did not specify any quantities or dollar amounts.
Jeffords, an independent who plans to retire this year, said he’d do all he can to lift the embargo and “promote closer relations between our peoples and our two governments.”
On the last day of the 5-day congressional trip, Jeffords, his wife Liz and some top aides were granted an audience with Fidel Castro.
According to the Burlington Free-Press, the senator told the old revolutionary that Castro had caused the anti-communist Republican politician big problems over the years be-cause his wife had been a strident Castro supporter during her high-school years.
Castro motioned to Mrs. Jeffords and told her “come right here and sit next to me.”
After that, Castro repeatedly told the senator he should listen more to his wife. “Liz was the real focus after that,” Jeffords told the newspaper, clearly amused by it all. “I was just some guy in the room.”