Cows to Cuba

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

Wright says his own prerogative is "the continued supply of New York and Pennsylvania dairy cattle, and Florida and Texas beef cattle, to rebuild Cuba's beef herds."

As that process unfolds, other companies with operations in South Florida stand to benefit as well. One is Select Sires, an Ohio-based cooperative whose two-man Miami staff each year sells about five million dollars' worth of bull semen to South and Central America and the Caribbean. They would like to add Cuba to their roster. "As people buy improved cattle, they tend to want to keep on that same route by buying semen of progeny-proven bulls," says Jerry Fickel, a 60-year-old Kansas native who works as a sales rep at Select Sires' Miami office. "As the cattle go [to Cuba], there will be demand for semen, and probably more veterinary products, and hopefully more machinery, like milking machines."

Select Sires attended the 2002 U.S. Food & Agribusiness Exhibition in Havana, but so far Fickel and his fellow sales rep in Miami have been unable to finalize a semen deal with Cuban officials. Part of the problem is that suppliers from Canada, free of embargo restrictions, got to Havana ahead of them. Another barrier originates in Washington, and has come into plain view with the arrival of the current presidential election season.

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

The Bush administration, in an apparent effort to shore up and motivate Republican-leaning Cuban-American voters needed to win what could be a tight race in Florida, has ordered the Treasury Department to curtail the number of permits it awards U.S. businesses interested in sending representatives to Cuba. Treasury also refused to renew a license for a second U.S. Food & Agribusiness Exhibition, originally scheduled for this past January.

"I think there's concern about more and more restrictions on getting permission to travel to Cuba, especially among those businesspeople who were hoping for things to go the other way," Fickel notes. "Outside of Miami, all my friends are wishing that the U.S. would open up relations."

They're wishful because there's good money to be made. "The number of jobs involved in commerce and trade is significant," Wright says. "Jobs, again, that are going to workers in Alabama, Mississippi, New Orleans. All these jobs, all this export, all these goods are not going through Miami-Dade County because of the misguided policies of a few."

One of them is Wright's own congressman, Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican whose District 25 spreads across Miami-Dade and Collier counties, uniting citizens from Biscayne Bay to the Gulf of Mexico under one polyglot political roof. While Cuban Americans who support the embargo constitute a majority of Miami-Dade County voters, they are a distinct minority in all other Florida counties, including Collier. Cuban Americans make up about seven percent of the state's electorate, enough to keep President Bush a rhetorical hardliner when it comes to Cuba. But he and other Republicans must proceed with caution so as not to alienate too many voters in the agricultural sector.

"He's against it," says Diaz-Balart's press secretary Thomas Dean, referring to trade of any kind with Cuba. Dean insists his boss will not be available for the foreseeable future for even a brief interview on the subject because he is engrossed in budget negotiations. Dean notes that it is Mario's brother, District 21 congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who tends to take the lead on legislation to quash U.S. trade with the island. In early 2003, for example, Lincoln intervened via the State Department to prevent a Tampa ferryboat company from getting a U.S. Treasury license to carry people and humanitarian aid to the Cuban city of Matanzas. But his last congressional move regarding the embargo was a 1995 resolution calling on the U.S. government to seek a worldwide embargo on Cuba. The proposal never made it to the House floor.

The Diaz-Balarts and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Miami-Dade's third Republican anti-embargo member of Congress, were among the minority who voted against lifting the U.S. government's prohibition on travel to Cuba last fall. (The measure never made it to the president's desk.) While the three argue that all trade with and travel to Cuba serves only to bolster the Castro regime, none has sponsored any legislation to actually tighten sanctions since 1994.

"Look at the vote in the House and the Senate," Wright says, referring to overwhelming majorities that favored ending the travel ban. "That speaks volumes about where the sentiment of Congress is. It's just that the will of the president is disconnected from the will of the majority of the people."

The sentiment in Miami-Dade, however, is still pro-embargo, although most of the Cuban-American majority view it as a failure. But when it comes to efforts to ratchet up sanctions on agricultural sales, Wright can't abide. "There were even some real morons in Miami who happened to be members of the Florida legislature and who called for a total embargo on Cuba," he marvels. "And I think in today's world they're criminals, being in an elected office and calling for further handicaps on the people of Cuba, like cutting off food sales.

"The people of Cuba now more than ever need a significant sign of change, from the White House and Congress to city hall in Miami," he says. "It's about time that real people step up and be helpful, open the door, instead of trying to hold it shut. It takes a real man to open a door for a lady, rather than to go through it himself. There's a lack of manners here."

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