Wednesday April 18, 12:03 pm ET
By Todd Dvorak, Associated Press Writer
Idaho Governor's Trip to Cuba Nets More Promise Than Immediate Gains
BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- When Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter set out for Cuba last
week, he billed it as an opportunity to sell Idaho groceries and
products to the Caribbean island's more than 11 million customers.
Aside from one meat export contract, the governor and his delegation
returned with more hopes than sales receipts, mindful that plenty of
work remains before Idaho potatoes, beef and medical products find their
niche on Cuban store shelves.
"We did a lot of field preparation down there; I have high hopes that
the work we've done and will continue doing in the weeks and months
ahead ... will result in a fruitful harvest for Idaho producers and
businesses," Otter said in a statement.
"The relationship we're building in Cuba could pay dividends for years
to come," he said.
Initially, Otter and his 35-member entourage returned from the four-day
visit Friday empty handed.
But Monday, Otter announced that Independent Meat Co. agreed to ship 54
metric tons of boneless pork legs to Cuba in June. The deal is valued at
$100,000 and the Twin Falls company is expected to bid on additional
contracts for delivery later this summer and in 2008.
Agreements to ship spuds or seed potatoes hinge on a future, unscheduled
visit to the state from Cuban trade officials and scientists, Otter
spokesman Jon Hanian said.
During talks, Hanian said Cuban officials insisted on an inspection of
Idaho potato fields before issuing an import permit and the opportunity
for Cuban researchers to collaborate in the fight against potato cyst
nematodes, a microscopic root-eating worm.
Otter did not meet with the country's ailing dictator Fidel Castro or
his brother Raul, who assumed the leadership duties last year.
But Hanian said discussions involved other key players, including;
Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban National Assembly; Raul de la
Nuez, minister of foreign trade; and Pedro Alvarez, chairman and CEO of
Alimport, the official Cuban importer.
"This is a work in progress," Hanian said. "It takes awhile to develop
these relationships and open the door in any country, let alone one that
still has layers of Cold War frost on it."
Some states have already cashed in on the Cuban market. Last month,
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman became the latest U.S. official to visit the
island nation, which bought $340 million in U.S. farm products in 2006.
Past agreements between Nebraska and Cuba have included beans, corn,
wheat, turkey, pork, beef and soy products.
For years, American food producers have sought to tap Cuban markets, but
are limited by the payment rules as well as the wider trade embargo
imposed by the U.S. government.
But Cuban experts caution against any rosy outlook for Idaho-Cuban trade.
"I don't see Cuba being a great bonanza for Idaho," said Jaime
Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American
Studies at the University of Miami. "Some of the deals Cuba has signed
with states in the past have never come to pass, for a variety of
reasons. Not everything that is signed and reported is actually
Back in 2004, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig and Otter, then a member of the
U.S. House of Representatives, signed a potential $10 million nonbinding
deal with Cuba for Idaho agricultural products. Still, the Idaho
Department of Commerce and Labor has on record just $22,616 in sales to
Cuba in the last decade -- a shipment of frozen potatoes.
Suchlicki also criticized American political leaders who put themselves
in a position to peddle products to a nation with a record of oppressing
"I think it's highly immoral for politicians to be involved in that kind
of activity," Suchlicki said.
But Otter contends the problem is not about elected leaders taking the
lead in building business bridges with countries like Cuba and China,
but with America's outdated and restrictive trade policies with those
"The governor feels like this has been a failed policy ... not so much
against Cubans, but against American citizens," Hanian said. "China is a
communist country and one of America's largest trading partners. I'm not
sure how this is any different."