Cows to Cuba

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

So far this legislative session, none of Miami-Dade's state legislators has been rude enough to try to slap a special tax on, say, each head of Florida cattle going to Cuba. But state Rep. David Rivera and state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla -- both Republican Cuban Americans from Miami-Dade -- are pushing identical bills to impose a hefty tax on every charter flight or charter boat trip to the island. Under the Commerce with Terrorist States Act, the tax per jet flight, for example, would be about $4000. The legislation would force vessel operators to part with ten percent of their compensation per trip. The proceeds would go into a Homeland Security Trust Fund, presumably to finance additional security measures at airports and seaports in Florida. The law would also require universities and colleges that run educational trips to Cuba to provide detailed itineraries and names of travelers.

Wright, meanwhile, is heading in the opposite direction. In between visits to Cuba, the Naples resident has made trips east across the Everglades for discreet meetings with Cuban-American businessmen to discuss strategies for enlisting corporate executives to support free trade with Cuba. "We're trying to build consensus," he says. "We want to work hard to keep friendly doors open."

Florida cattle shipments to Cuba will not offer a direct boon for Miami because its cramped seaport does not have livestock facilities. But Wright is beside himself when he ponders how the Magic City is perfectly situated to cash in on another type of export. "It would be the best place in the world from which to ship people to Cuba," he says. "Cruise ships! Please! Who's missing the boat here? Who's missing the boat? A whole community has missed the boat! The biggest cruise-ship capital in the world is sitting right in Miami, and that's where there's the biggest group that's saying you can't go 120 miles south. I've never heard of anything so stupid in my life -- that a group of people can stop the most beautiful part of the world from being connected by boats."

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

Wright says the biggest beneficiary of free trade with Cuba would be Miami-Dade County. "Can you imagine? If there were no restrictions, the businesses in Miami would thrive. Dade County would have an increase of its GNP so to speak, its volume of sales and revenues, by at least ten percent the first year," he says, excitement growing in his voice. "Imagine the windfall of jobs in Miami-Dade County just from the new export businesses lining up in Miami, from the transportation, packing, and shipping of goods. The impact of tourism and travel would benefit the hotel industry with all of the coming and going." Then he concludes: "There's not much time left for such a failed policy."

Wright's latest visit to Cuba, for the March cattlemen's fair, has instilled a different kind of urgency. "I've just traveled to twelve ranches -- from Havana to Camagüey to Holguín to Contramaestra to Villa Clara," he said via telephone from the Hotel Nacional in Havana last week. "And I've noticed that there are a lot of animals here, but there's a drought in Cuba. So Cuba needs our help in irrigation, in animal feed, all types of very basic things. This is a time to help our amigos cubanos."

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