The Cuban Kong

What's $28 million a year and added jobs for the poorest American city mean next to big cubanismo, bro?

This is all news to Mayor Alex Penelas's trade office, also known as the new Jay Malina International Trade Consortium. The 39-member organization, headquartered down the hall from the mayor's desk, is a taxpayer-funded agency composed of Miami-Dade officials, trade associations, and private business people. The mayor's international trade coordinator Leslie Herren told New Times she was unaware that food and agricultural sales to Cuba are now allowed under U.S. law. "I am not involved in any Cuban issues of any nature," she stressed. "I know nothing about this. And I usually hear everything related to international trade. You might want to check with the port."

Relieved to change the subject, Herren noted the consortium is busy with two exciting new projects, one involving an Irish trade mission to Miami-Dade, the other a Miami-Dade trade mission to South Africa. But capturing Cuban trade for the county has never come up. "We try to respond to what we hear from the, you know, taxpayers, the Miami-Dade County residents. And this just is not something that has been addressed."

The consortium chairman, county Commissioner Pepe Diaz, also did not know that U.S. food and agricultural sales to Cuba became legal in 2000, but earnestly vowed to investigate the situation. "It's pretty taboo, but if it's happening and it relates to trade I have to be aware of it, since I'm the chair," he affirmed. He predicted he would have serious questions about any food sales but said he was open to discussing the issue. "Is it going to the people there or is it going to the government?" he wondered. "I run a strong line with a government that doesn't respect the people that it represents. At the same time I know we gotta open up and deal with the people. If the food is going to the people who need it, there's not a problem with that. But if the food is just going to generate cash for Castro's hotels and stuff then I might have a problem."

Miami-Dade's "Don't ask, don't tell" approach to Cuban trade has given Tampa and Jacksonville a big head start
Steve Satterwhite
Miami-Dade's "Don't ask, don't tell" approach to Cuban trade has given Tampa and Jacksonville a big head start

With pluralists like Diaz in the consortium it could be only a matter of time before one of them suggests a Cuban Trade Task Force, similar to the African Trade Task Force that Mayor Penelas formed in 1998. In fact the idea is already circulating among local free-trade promoters. "We just need to start a dialogue among the players in our community to deal with this issue," said Ben Neji, vice president of the Americas Food and Beverage Trade Show & Conference, an annual exhibition in Miami-Dade County. "There's no dialogue. There's no communication."

Such a task force, Neji allowed, would be "a group of clairvoyant people who believe in this community, who believe and care about the future of this community. A group that involves the private sector, local government, the county. Just to approach the subject. Once we have the core group together and agreed, let's make Cuba our priority for the next five, ten years, then we're talking." Neji emphasized this was his own opinion and not that of his employer, World Trade Center Miami, a nonprofit organization with offices in about 300 cities around the world. He also hastened to add: "Believe me, I'm not pro-Castro whatsoever. It's the other way around. My thinking is that we really have to change things in Cuba and ... open up to democracy. The best way to do it is really within the norms of the law. I know there's an embargo on Cuba, but legally we can [now] sell food."

With a majority of el exilio favoring dialogue over confrontation with Cuban officials, according to recent opinion polls, perhaps a bolder county trade policy toward Havana is in order. When Neji staged a seminar on selling food to Cuba at the food and beverage show this past December, he received angry e-mails and phone calls from only one anti-Castro activist. The featured speaker was John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a New York-based group formed in 1994 to provide accurate information about the island to businesses. Kavulich explained how to apply for licenses from the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments, which federal law requires of U.S. businesses that export to Cuba. He told participants that Cuba is one of the safest export markets for the U.S. because the transactions are cash only.

But there are dangers, such as U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who is powerful enough to destroy trade deals with Cuba even when the players are far from his Miami-Dade district. "Some people in Tampa wanted to take people [to Cuba] by ferry," he announced to listeners on Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710) one evening last month. "I intervened through the Department of State. And they have assured me that the ferry isn't going." He praised President Bush for his "extraordinary manifestation of solidarity" in agreeing to reject the ferry operator's license application.

Leadership like that may explain why county officials have yet to overcome the Gorilla phobia. At Towsley's state of the port address Miami-Dade Commissioner Dennis Moss acknowledged he'd heard about all the food and agricultural sales to Cuba. Moss chairs the county commission's transportation committee, a logical venue for discussions on how the port and county could cash in on the emerging market across the Florida Straits. But the subject has never come up in his committee, he reported with a smile. He added cheerfully that he's not going to bring it up either, so as not to offend anyone. "We have to be sensitive to the community," he submitted.

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