Cows to Cuba

A South Florida rancher is using bovine diplomacy to improve relations with the island nation

The white-haired, soft-spoken man seated comfortably in a plush chair inside the Biltmore Hotel's elegant lounge thinks the U.S. Treasury Department could be after him. Why? Because during his most recent visit to Cuba he played his harmonica without a license. It's a joke.

But this is not: He has also received cigars from the hands of Fidel Castro's 79-year-old elder brother, Ramon, and handed them out to various friends and acquaintances in South Florida. The Treasury Department doesn't care about that; it's legal for authorized travelers to bring home a box of socialist stogies. For many in Miami-Dade's Cuban diaspora, however, the smokes nonetheless violate a moral law that condemns anything the Castros have touched. The gentleman, whose Stetson is parked nearby, has been talking steadily for the past hour. The forward tilt of his shoulders, and the cup of espresso on the table, suggest he is prepared to do so longer into the night. His dark business suit still looks crisp, though it's now past 11:00. At times his drawl dips almost to a whisper, which might be a good thing because some denizens of this tony Coral Gables tavern could find his words offensive, if not outrageous. For one thing, he is bullish on Cuba. In fact he's so bullish he believes the leftist island 120 miles to the south could be requesting tens of thousands of beef cattle from Florida ranches before long.

His name is John Parke Wright IV, a smooth-talking Naples-based rancher whose family has been in the cattle business since the mid-1800s. The trim 54-year-old is helping to wage a protracted battle that started elsewhere in the nation. On one side are U.S. farmers and ranchers who want the freedom to sell their products to Cuba; on the other, guardians of the embargo who argue that such sales only serve to feed the beast known as the Castro regime. Wright began to open up a southern front in the conflict four years ago. Last August he made news by taking a group of Florida ranchers to Cuba. His dream, he says, is for Floridians and Cubans to trade freely, as they did decades ago. That quest takes him across treacherous political territory in Florida, especially in Miami-Dade, where virtually all elected officials still kowtow before the taboo against even thinking of doing business with Fidel Castro's government.

Seated around Wright this evening are several men and women who, like him, have spent a long day in an upstairs ballroom, at the National Summit on Cuba, hosted by a coalition of anti-embargo groups. Lubricated with cocktails, wine, and coffee, they are bemoaning President Bush's decision last year to revoke the licenses of numerous U.S. groups involved in cultural-exchange projects on the island, reversing a ten-year policy the Clinton administration had initiated. The October summit has brought together dozens of policy wonks, politicians, and activists pushing to end the U.S. trade embargo and travel ban against Cuba, arguing that they have failed. The event culminated in a dinner speech by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who believes the United States would be wise to lift the trade sanctions altogether and begin talks aimed at restoring economic and diplomatic ties.

Wright was among those at the head table with Gorbachev. The rancher muses about a chat he had with the man who brought us glasnost and perestroika. Gorby, he says, pondered an historical irony: In the Sixties, the Soviet Union sent soldiers to Cuba; now America is sending ranchers. "It's time for the cowboys," Wright declares.

Not only has he received cigars from Ramon Castro, but the two have spent time riding horses and visiting Cuba's ranches. "Ramon Castro is the eldest of seven," says Wright. "He prides himself as being the rancher in the family. He's in good health. He moves around the country with the guajiros and ranchers. He's genuinely loved and appreciated and given the same respect in Cuba as Ronald Reagan would if he walked around our country -- together with Santa Claus. He's a nice, generous man."

Wright has been moving carefully but boldly through a door that opened four years ago in the Bush administration's increasingly tough trade policies toward Cuba. A 43-year-old travel ban persists, forbidding most U.S. citizens from flying or boating to the island for tourism. And the federal government still prohibits almost all commercial sales to Cuba. But in 2000, just months before the presidential election, lawmakers from agricultural states pushed Congress to pass the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act. In doing so they created long lists of medical, agricultural, and processed-food products that companies could sell to Cuba, as long as the Cuban government paid for them in cash. President Bush signed the bill into law.

Cattle were on the list, and Wright was prepared. He had received two U.S. Treasury Department licenses in 1999, one to sell cattle to Cuba and one to ship them. In September 2002 he rustled up several bulls and heifers, flew them to Havana, and put them on display for the first U.S. Food & Agribusiness Exhibition on the island. Representatives from 300 U.S. companies, including 30 from Florida, attended.

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