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.

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

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.

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.

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.

In the late 1840s, Lykes and McKay began shipping thousands of cattle from Tampa and Fort Myers to Havana. During this period McKay sailed to India in search of bovines that could adapt easily to Florida's hot and humid climate. He came back with a boatload of Brahma bulls, and proceeded to breed them with Brown Swiss heifers on his ranch outside Tampa. There was no embargo against Cuba in those days, but for a time McKay had a reputation for sailing his ship past a U.S. Army blockade in order to supply beef to Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War. Between 1868 and 1878, Florida cattlemen exported more than 1.5 million cattle to Cuba. Spanish colonists on the island would pay up to eight times more than cattle consumers in Florida, Wright notes. Demand was especially high in 1879, after Cuba's First War of Independence against Spain; the ten-year conflict had devastated the country's cattle supply. That year McKay's ships carried about 100,000 head of beef cattle to Cuba.

Around the turn of the century, H.T. Lykes's seven sons began acquiring land in Cuba, where they found they could fatten cattle faster even than in Florida. "It was a mirror image -- the cattle and beef industry in Cuba was similar to the cattle and beef industry in Florida," Wright says. "The main slaughterhouse was outside Havana, and several ranches were across the country. There was a good rail system in Cuba to get the cattle to the central slaughterhouse."

After the ouster of dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, revolutionary forces seized a 15,000-acre ranch Lykes Brothers operated in Bayamo, in eastern Cuba, and converted it to a cooperative. Wright says the acreage was converted to sugar production. The company has had a $3.6 million claim for the land on file with the U.S. Justice Department ever since. "When the government nationalized all private landholdings and businesses, those families like my own who'd been there had no choice but to leave, and the embargo made it impossible for them to go back." In other words, Wright has a decent excuse to hold a grudge against the Cuban government. But he doesn't. "The embargo has taken a greater toll on the people of Cuba than any other thing over the last 40 years," he says quietly. "Anything that divides and separates them has to be removed as much as possible so that the unification of the Cuban people can take its own course."


Dairy cows would be one unifier that Wright could provide. Last year he accompanied a group of Cuban veterinarians and agriculture officials to New York and Pennsylvania to pick out 148 of them.

Wright's first step in that deal was to learn where a well-known South Florida dairy gets its cows. "McArthur is in South Florida. It produces great milk and ice cream, and is one of our best dairies," he explains. He persuaded McArthur Dairy's supplier in Pennsylvania and others from neighboring New York to consider a sale to Cuba.

Those dairy cows, which included Jerseys and Holsteins, were acclimatized in Florida and then shipped out of Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades last August. Nothing could be more logical for Wright. "South Florida is the closest thing you'll find to Cuba. We're in the same geographic zone. We just have a false economic barrier." About a hundred of the animals were "bred" heifers -- that is, pregnant -- and have since given birth at their new home, the Niña Bonita Ranch outside Havana. Most of those cows are now each producing about fourteen liters of milk per day, he notes: "That's a big production jump from the previous standard in Cuba.

"One particular ice cream company wants to order some of these cattle because it's just right for their ice cream," he says with a smile. "It's the Flamingo brand ice cream. It's a very fine ice cream."

This past January Wright hosted specialists from Cuba's Ministry of Agriculture and the Institute of Veterinary Science, who traveled to the Sunshine State to select a shipment of beef cattle. They picked 80 Brangus cows (a cross of three-eighths Brahma with five-eighths Angus) from Wright's ranch; 80 Brafords (a cross between a Brahma and a Hereford) from Fort Pierce rancher Bud Adams; and 81 Beef Masters from a variety of other Florida ranchers. The deal also included three bulls of each breed. The 50 Black Angus added to the order two weeks ago will come from the Baldwin Angus Ranch in Ocala.

At about 950,000 head, Florida's inventory of beef cattle ranks eleventh in the United States. That means ranchers in the Sunshine State have some political clout. The Florida Cattlemen's Association is not sticking its neck out against the embargo, however, perhaps not wanting to alienate pro-embargo legislators the ranchers may need to rely on for other matters. Still the FCA, which lobbies in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., on behalf of its 4000 members, has given a quiet nod of approval. "I'm in favor of Florida ranchers being profitable," declares Jim Handley, the association's vice president and spokesman. "If they can find a profitable market somewhere, that's great. What they do as individuals is their prerogative."

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.

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."

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 peopleto 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."

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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