CubaNews / January 2007
By Larry Luxner
If he were running for governor of neighboring Florida, Ron Sparks wouldn’t make it past the primaries.
But Sparks is from the Heart of Dixie State, not the Sunshine State — and in Alabama, publicly calling for an end to the embargo against Cuba isn’t the kiss of death but apparently a way to score points with voters.
Sparks is Alabama’s commissioner of agriculture and industries. Born and raised in Fort Payne, Ala., the 53-year-old Democrat was elected to the post in 2002 and re-elected last November for another four years.
Growing up, he worked alongside his grandmother at a local sock mill while attending high school. After completing his service in the U.S. Coast Guard, Sparks graduated from Northeast State Community College, and in 1978 — at the age of 24 — became one of the youngest county commissioners ever elected in Alabama history.
He’s also owned two successful businesses in Fort Payne and has worked in television. Sparks — who’s been to Cuba at least three times since taking office —has openly ex-pressed interest in running for governor of Alabama in 2010, when Gov. Bob Riley’s current term ends.
And he’s proud of his friendship with Pedro Alvarez, chairman and CEO of Cuba’s state-run food purchasing agency Alimport.
In a lengthy phone interview from Montgomery, Sparks told CubaNews that in 2006, Alimport spent one-third of its budget for U.S. agricultural commodities — about $140 million —on Alabama-sourced products, under the 2000 Trade Sanctions and Reform Export Enhancement Act (TSRA).
That includes everything from peanut butter, peanut paste and peanuts from Georgia-based Mazur & Hockman; peanut butter blended with Alaga syrup from Whitfield Foods in Montgomery, and soybean oil, utility poles and various other products from Alabama companies the agency declined to identify.
“Cuba has been extremely important to Alabama,” Sparks told us. “We started three and a half years ago, when I first came into office, working with Pedro. We have since had a number of successful trade missions that have resulted in about $350 million in economic impact for the state of Alabama.”
During his most recent trip to Cuba — a four-day trade mission in December that coincided with a 10-member Congressional delegation — Sparks and his entourage treated Alimport officials to a meal of fried Alabama catfish, cornbread, butterbeans, green bean casserole, cole slaw, pecan pie with ice cream and sweet tea.
“We want to benefit agriculture, create jobs and help Alabama. We’ve increased our staff in international trade, and we’re looking at every opportunity we can,” said Sparks. He noted that other states which haven’t been shipping products or sending trade missions to Havana “will soon realize they may be missing out on a great opportunity.”
Whether folks in Tallahassee are listening remains to be seen, but in Montgomery, state officials have wasted no time in capitalizing on their trade ties with Havana.
Sen. Lowell Barron, who was among those accompanying Sparks on his most recent trip to Havana, told the Huntsville Times “we need to look at ways to lift the trade embargo. It makes no sense. It’s obviously not working, and we need to try a different strategy. When and if that government turns around, Alabama is going to be in a perfect position.”
Barron said the state is also trying to sell Cuba on purchasing pond-raised catfish from west Alabama producers.
“One of their great problems is that they don’t have enough money to buy the highest-quality fish,” he said. “They have to get fish they can afford.”
Among Alabama’s biggest trading advantages is its proximity to Cuba. The Port of Mobile is only 545 nautical miles from Havana, and the two cities have a long, historic relationship dating back to 1702, when Mobile became the capital capital of the Louisiana Territory (see our special report on Mobile in CubaNews, September 2004, page 14).
In 1993, Mobile officials traveled to Havana and set up the first sister-city relationship between any U.S. city and Cuba since the 1959 revolution. Six years later, Mobile unveiled a statue at the entrance to Havana harbor, and in 2001, the first boatload of U.S. food commodities to be shipped to Cuba in 40 years left from the Port of Mobile.
“I’ve been upfront and honest with the people of Alabama about why we trade with Cuba,” said Sparks. “My main concern is with two things: I hope the food we’re sending to Cuba in some way gets to the Cuban people, and I hope it helps my farmers in Alabama.”
The agriculture commissioner added that “when I go to Cuba — even when I was around the president [Fidel Castro] — I never talked politics. The only thing we talk about is helping the people of Cuba.”
So far, Alabama’s top export to Cuba has been poultry. Arkansas-based Tyson Foods is the top seller of poultry to Cuba, and much of that poultry is sourced from chicken processing plants in Alabama. In addition, Montgomery-based Calhoun Foods has shipped over 60 containers of meat products and other commodities to Cuba.
In addition, Bunge Corp., which has a soybean processing and milling plant in Decatur, Ala., is among companies that will sell farm products to Cuba in 2007, though officials at Bunge headquarters in St. Louis couldn’t be reached for comment.
But perhaps Alabama’s most unusual export to Cuba isn’t something you eat.
Wooden utility poles, as many as 100,000 of them, have been shipped to Cuba with TSRA’s blessing. According to John Key, international trade director at the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industry, 99% of those poles came from sawmills in southwestern Alabama, primarily Escambia and Washington counties.
“It’s actually an approved product under TSRA,” Key told us. “Keep in mind that lumber and utility poles — even wooden doors and window frames — are on the list to be sold to Cuba.
“The brokers that sell utility poles and lumber are based out of Florida, but they’re selling an Alabama product,” he said, estimating that $40 million worth of such poles have been shipped to Cuba over the last four years.
In the last eight months alone, Alimport has signed contracts for 30,000 utility poles — all of them shipped out of Mobile. But Key wouldn’t name the companies involved because, he said, “this is highly competitive.”
Although Cuba is certainly an important market for Alabama’s agricultural products, it’s not the only one. Sparks recently led Alabama’s first-ever trade delegation to Africa, and later this month will be opening a trade office in India. Sparks will also be going to Dubai, and is involved in several deals with Mexico, Japan and the European Union.
But Cuba is the one market that seems to get his emotions going.
“Maybe I am uneducated, but I can tell you this: I’ve been to Havana, I’ve walked through the neighborhoods, and I want to help these people,” Sparks told CubaNews.
“If somebody wants to look at me wrong because I’d like to help them have a better quality of life, then I’m sorry. It’s not politics to me, it’s my heart, it’s the way I feel. I just don’t agree with the Cuba policies we currently have in effect.”
Sparks says he’s had “very little negative” feedback from his trips to Cuba, though he admits to being very frustrated with all the restrictions imposed by the Bush administration on selling to Cuba — such as letters of credit, cash payment up front and the difficulties of actually traveling to Cuba to meet face-to-face with potential buyers.
“We’ve had obstacles put up in front of us. We’ve tried to state our case in Washington, but we will continue to abide by the rules, no matter how tough they make them — even if we don’t agree with them.”
Sparks says he hopes things will change now that the Democrats are controlling Congress. “But I don’t think this can all be done in one swoop,” he told us. “We’ve got to start looking at the travel sanctions. People should be allowed to travel freely. Americans ought to be able to go wherever they want to go. And that’s just the beginning.”
He said: “I’m not trying to tell the Bush administration what it should or shouldn’t do, but I don’t agree with any country that won’t even have a dialogue. What’s wrong with talking to them? We ought to be talking.”