Cows to Cuba

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

Last August, as a result of a deal it took him four years to broker, Cuba first bought 148 dairy cows from New York and Pennsylvania farms. Some were shipped from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, others from the Port of Jacksonville. Then the Castro government started asking for beef cattle.

Late last year Wright announced plans to send 250 Florida beef cattle to the island. But the mad cow disease scare (triggered by a single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in Washington state last December) prompted the Cubans to extend the quarantine period that serves to detect diseased animals. The delay will be minimal, Wright notes with assurance, because Florida is relatively isolated from the rest of the country, making the chances of infection extremely unlikely. "We seem to be somewhat immune because of our feed and breeding program," he maintains. "The feeds -- Florida grass and citrus pellets -- are all indigenous to Florida."

Two weeks ago, while Wright was in Havana for an international cattle show, the Cuban government increased its order of Florida beef cattle to 300, agreeing to pay just under a million dollars in total. "It's a very fair price for getting the best-quality animals they can, especially the Black Angus," he says. The bovines will make the 300-mile boat ride from Tampa Bay to Havana sometime between now and July. And, he predicts, this is only the beginning.

John Parke Wright IV (at right in middle photo) and 
Havana's leading rancher, Ramon Castro, are trying to 
steer their nations toward friendly relations
John Parke Wright IV (at right in middle photo) and Havana's leading rancher, Ramon Castro, are trying to steer their nations toward friendly relations

He says that Pedro Alvarez, director of Alimport, Cuba's import agency, envisions importing 100,000 head of beef cattle from the United States once the embargo is lifted. At the prices Wright has been getting so far, sales of that magnitude would bring ranchers revenues of $200 million to $300 million. (Since the legalization of agricultural sales, Cuba says it has spent about $631 million in cash for a variety of U.S. agricultural products, including corn, wheat, rice, soybean oil, apples, chicken cutlets, cotton, paper, wood, wine, and whiskey. As a result, the island has moved from 228th to 46th on the list of countries that buy such goods from the United States.)

More maddening to Wright than mad cow disease, however, are Miami-based politicians opposed to Americans selling anything to Cuba, no matter how long the Castro regime stays in power. "I feel sorry for them," he says. "They don't have a clue about their own country. If they happen to be Cuban Americans, my best advice to them would be, in a very kindly way, to recommend that they go to Cuba as soon as possible. They need to return to their country of origin at least once or twice a year and find one family member, one friend of the family, one charitable organization, one church, one synagogue, one orphanage, one hospital to help. Even the sad case of someone who doesn't have the mental ability to understand the problem can still go and be helpful and do a kind act toward another human being. So those Miami legislators in Tallahassee would be a lot better off if they were to help somebody in Cuba person-to-person than go to Tallahassee and sit on a political soapbox and grandstand.

"If I've learned one thing as a Floridian," he adds, "it's that Cuba is a very beautiful country, and that Cubans are a very kind and special people. We're lucky to have such kind and special people as our neighbors to the south."

That kind of talk is incendiary in Miami-Dade and wherever former political prisoners and other victims of Cuba's 45-year dictatorship may roam. And it's a fair question: Isn't Wright bothered by the limits on free speech, freedom of assembly, last year's imprisonment of nearly 80 dissidents? He nods as if to say yes, but quickly offers his standard reply to such questions: No mas tontería política. Translation: "No more political foolishness." That's his response and he's sticking to it. Such concerns should not be used to justify an embargo.

"Sometimes it's best for politicians to remove themselves from the human barrier and let the Cuban people work at it," he suggests. "This is exactly what happened in East and West Germany. Politicians removed themselves from the barrier, the wall came right down, and people were unified as a country, as a people. I'm opposed to any false barriers to trade and travel that are politically imposed. Now, I'm not going to protest about it. I'm not going to complain about it. I'm just going to do something about it under United States law. Currently, that's trade."

Wright's interest in Florida's cattle trade with Cuba predates Miami's feud with Castro by a long shot. Two generations before the Castros arrived in Cuba, one of Wright's ancestors, James McKay, was making beef history in the New World. McKay, a ship owner from Aberdeen, Scotland, moved to the Tampa area in the 1840s. His daughter Almeria McKay married H.T. Lykes, Wright's great-great-grandfather, who started a shipping company in Tampa and launched a cattle and orange-grove operation on 500 acres in the area. Today Lykes Brothers is one of the largest landholders in the state and remains in the citrus industry. Wright left the family business in 1987 to start J.P. Wright & Co. His cousin Arthur Savage, who is McKay's great-great-grandson, runs A.R. Savage & Son, a 50-year-old shipping company that has a contract to take the new order of Florida cattle to Cuba.

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