CubaNews / September 2002
By Larry Luxner
When a U.S. cargo plane lands later this month at Havana’s José Martí International Airport, both CNN and “60 Minutes” will likely be waiting to film the animals as they emerge from their flying Noah’s Ark into the tropical heat: two North Dakota bison, two Illinois dairy cows, two Minnesota sheep and various breeds of Minnesota beef cattle.
The creatures — sure to turn lots of Cuban heads — are destined for the U.S. Food & Agribusiness Exhibition, scheduled for Sept. 26-30 at Havana’s huge Pabexpo convention
center. But the real headline-grabber could be the $150 million in deals likely to be signed over the next nine months as a direct result of the show, predicts exhibition organizer Peter W. Nathan.
At last count, nearly 200 companies, government agencies and trade associations from 32 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have confirmed their participation in the event. Together, they’ll exhibit more than 1,000 brands ranging from Egg*Land’s Best and Born-Free Organic Eggs to Blue Bunny ice cream.
“Cubans like American products,” says Nathan, president of PWN Exhibicon International. “In my opinion, economics dictates politics, and I believe very strongly that we should have normal trade relations with the rest of the world.”
Dignitaries expected to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony include Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura; Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Thomas Irvin; Don Marsh, chairman and CEO of Indianapolis-based Marsh Supermarkets Inc., and various members of Congress.
Will Fidel Castro make an appearance?
“I hope so, because he’s vitally interested in food and agriculture,” says Nathan.
The Connecticut businessman, interviewed by CubaNews in Miami on his way to Havana for the fifth time this year, said the Cubans have guaranteed that at least 18,000 “industry professionals” will attend the event.
“You’re going to have military people there who purchase food for the Armed Forces, hotel and banquet managers who purchase food for hotels, restaurant and nightclub managers; hospital and clinic administrators, and managers of supermarkets there as well,” he said.
Special events within the exhibit include Saturday, Sept. 28 — designated “Trademark Day” — and Sunday, Sept. 29, when the show is opened to the public for free (though the Cuban government decides who gets tickets).
In addition, field trips have been scheduled to farmers’ markets, beverage factories, canning plants, food storage depots, meat-processing plants, ports and railway facilities.
Nathan, 69, has been in the exhibition business for over 45 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. “
But we had relations with those countries, so the circumstances were different,” he said. “They were considered friendly countries. With Cuba, you’re dealing with an embargoed country where special permission is required to deal with them.”
Nathan’s first trip to the communist-ruled island was in 1998, when he began laying the groundwork for his U.S. Healthcare Exhibi-tion. That five-day event, which took place in January 2000, made history as the first U.S. trade show in Cuba in 40 years. It lured 305 representatives from 97 U.S. companies, and was attended by over 8,000 Cuban health-care professionals and government officials.
Those numbers will easily be surpassed at this month’s event, which will feature locals paid to walk around wearing colorful, zany outfits depicting U.S. food products, skilled chefs to whip up tasty dishes on the spot — and plenty of free samples to take home.
“I’ve been informed that the press will cover the event rather heavily,” Nathan told CubaNews, insisting that “this is not a political event, it’s strictly a commercial event.”
Yet only 63 of the nearly 200 companies and organizations planning to exhibit have agreed to be identified ahead of time — for marketing as well as security reasons (see box below).
And, perhaps due to local pressure, neither the Florida Farm Bureau nor the University of Florida plan to attend the event.
Nevertheless, Pedro Alvarez, president of Alimport, a unit of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Trade, said in a statement that “Alimport will use the U.S. Food & Agribusiness Exhibition to identify millions of U.S. dollars in new purchases, especially branded food products.”
Alimport has already imported over $100 million worth of U.S. food and agricultural commodities since passage of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, which lets U.S. firms sell specific products to Cuba on a cash-only basis.
By June 2003, says Nathan, the total will likely surpass $250 million, with contracts for nearly all the $150 million in new purchases signed during the event.
“All the Cubans [at the show] can do is specify what items they want,” he said. “Alimport buys 90% of all the food and signs all the contracts. What they buy is very often predicated on what they are asked to buy.”
Brands which Alimport has specifically re-quested include Jif peanut butter, Jell-O, Miracle Whip, Kraft salad dressing, Philadel-phia cream cheese, Kellogg’s, Crisco oil, Pop-Tarts, Spam luncheon meat, Pepsi and Coke.
Many of those products are already sold at hard-currency shops in Cuba — having been imported by various government agencies — but they generally arrive through third countries . And that often results in outdated products, higher costs and delayed delivery.
Under TSRA, food commodities may be ex-orted directly to Cuba. And so far, the No. 1 supplier of such commodities is Decatur, Ill.-based Archer Daniels Midland, which also happens to be the show’s chief sponsor.
“They get their name on all of our promotional literature, and they’ll have the front-row center stand,” said Nathan, who wouldn’t say how much ADM is paying for the privilege, other than that “it’s not excessive.”
Several other corporate entities are co-sponsoring the show including Cargill, Marsh Supermarkets, Continental Airlines and Gulfstream. Companies exhibiting at the event are paying $3,960 for a nine-square-meter, fully furnished booth, which includes three walls, carpeting, furniture, electricity, signage and in-hall transportation of exhibit materials.
“The U.S. Commerce Department doesn’t endorse this show, but they do assist us in getting the exhibitors’ products licensed,” said Nathan. “In that, they’ve been incredibly cooperative and helpful.”
So has the Cuban government, which views the expo as an opportunity to further weaken the embargo. Cuban officials are well aware that the U.S. food products shipped to their island since December 2001 have been sourced from 30 states which together represent 72% of the membership of the House of Representatives and 60% of the Senate.
Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, recently told reporters that Castro’s goal is “to entice the U.S. agricultural community by buying relatively small amounts, to entice them with cash purchases so that we open up markets and have, quote, normal trade relationships.”
And what’s wrong with that, asks Nathan?
“When you think about it, we’re talking about food purchases,” says the businessman. “I can’t see any real objection to that.”