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Ag Commissioner addresses
  Cuban trade controversy

The Bush administration recently announced new restrictions on sales of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba and on the rights of U.S. citizens to travel there as well. The new restrictions have produced considerable debate in and outside of Washington about the wisdom of the new policies, and farmers, several U.S. companies and state officials are crying foul. The Cooperative Farming News recently sat down with Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture & Industries, Ron Sparks, and talked with him about the future of Alabama’s growing trade with that island nation.

Farming News:

The US has been able to export to Cuba only since 2000. What made you focus on Cuba and as Commissioner of Agriculture & 


Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture & Industries
Ron Sparks

Industries, how did you go about getting the process started?

Commissioner Sparks:

The main thing that made me focus on Cuba was realizing that Cuba is a diamond in the rough in the Caribbean and that I personally thought there were some opportunities there that the farmers of Alabama were missing. By the geographical location of Alabama and the Port of Mobile, I thought it was nothing but right for Alabama to be aggressive and try to create and promote trade with Cuba after Congress gave us leeway. 

How I got started was to take a trip to Washington to the Cuban Interest Section. I sat down and talked to Ambassador Rodriquez. I asked them if they could line me up with the right people to start talking with. It was then arranged for me to take a delegation to Cuba where we sat down and talked to Pedro Alvarez, Chairman and CEO of Cuba’s food import company, Alimport. 

I told them my intentions, what I wanted to do and what we had in Alabama that they might have an interest in. I told him about the Port of Mobile and how other states could send their exports to them through the Port of Mobile. I told him how it took less than 40 hours to ship goods to Cuba from the Port of Mobile. We then sat down with trade negotiators to talk about the products we had to offer. We have been very successful in continuing to build that relationship and helping companies in Alabama put some of those contracts together.

Farming News:

Alabama has sold Cuba chicken, snack foods, wood and cotton. Looking ahead, what other agricultural goods do you see our producers sending?

Commissioner Sparks:

It’s true that we’ve been very successful with our wood products. Certainly, poultry is a big item where Cuba is now ranked eighth in poultry importerhttps://www.alafarmnews.com/files/0205archive/s from alabama. they buy the dark meat or the hindquarters that our producers need to move since the russians stopped buying them and put our poultry farmers in a bind. in addition to that, we’ve had the opportunity to sell them grains through alabama farmers co-op. we’ve sold them catsup, gatorade, ice cream and we’re in the process of looking at some of our chip or cookie products. 

Farming News:

Oil has been discovered in the Gulf of Mexico in an area under Cuba’s control. Development of a new coal-fired thermoelectric power plant is in the works and expansion of another is under way. As Cuba spends less on energy, why shouldn’t they spend that money on their tourism infrastructure, which, after all, is their most profitable industry? Why spend it on food from Alabama?

Commissioner Sparks:

The way they can spend it on products from Alabama is through the money made by their tourist trade. They have a lot of tourists. The only people that can’t travel to Cuba are the people from the United States. 

There are over seventy countries that see the potential there and have partnered with Cuba in business deals, building the infrastructure needed by erecting the five star hotels and restaurants. Other infrastructure opportunities in Cuba are transportation, electrical and communications. 

Education is a very high priority among the Cubans with a literacy rate at about 99%. I’ve had the good fortune to go to biotech centers and talk to the doctors about the research that’s going on there. Cuba has made leaps and bounds toward possibly curing cancer. What if Cuba and the United States partnered and we could save one life with our combined medical technologies. That’s another reason why we need normalized relations. 

Do we open all the doors and all the windows? No. I think we should move in a cautious manner but I still think we need to be moving forward rather than backward. Unfortunately, we can’t do that right now. There are other folks doing it. Even if the embargo is lifted tomorrow, the United States will be on the outside because we’re not helping to build that infrastructure…we have no investment there. 

Farming News:

Newly appointed, Cuban-born Secretary of Commerce, Carlos Gutierrez, is expected to support President Bush’s policies of blocking most trade with Fidel Castro’s government. As part of this effort, Cuba could be forced to pay cash “in hand” in advance of shipment for any food they purchase from us in the future. Won’t making it tougher and more expensive for the Cuban government to do business with us send them elsewhere for the products we now provide? Surely Brazil, Argentina and Mexico can provide any agricultural commodities they might need. 

Commissioner Sparks:

If the administration re-interprets the law of payment, then they will basically kill the trade that we have with Cuba. Are they willing to throw out over a billion dollars of trade with thirty-seven states because of the political atmosphere in south Florida? That’s a question that they’re going to have to answer, not me. I’m not the governor of Florida, I’m not the president of the United States but I’ll be very honest; these embargos, these policies that have been put in place and strengthened in the past few days are all about politics. Very simple. If that’s the route that they take, they’re going to have to answer to Congress and the thirty-seven states that have done business with Cuba, not me. 

When we’re down there talking trade we talk only trade. We don’t talk about domestic issues, we don’t talk about our president…that’s not my job. My job is to go to Cuba representing agriculture and other businesses of Alabama and help to get them in the position to negotiate deals. I don’t personally negotiate any deals but I certainly help and I certainly show support for those companies that do go. Those are very hard negotiations that go on down there, by the way. We’re competing against thirty or forty states and other countries. The Cubans realize it’s a whole lot cheaper to ship from Mobile than it is from China or Brazil. If we do lose those orders to China or Brazil then there is a very real possibility that we’ll never get those orders back. 

You need to remember that through all the negotiations and deals that have been put together, no state that I know of, including Alabama, has lost one dime in a transaction with Cuba. They’ve lived up to their responsibility and we’ve lived up to ours, and we’re going to continue to make this thing work. We make very sure that we dot our I’s and cross our T’s. We’re not going to do anything that’s outside the policies and boundaries that have been given us by Congress. We need to do everything we can to enhance our trade rather than back away from it. 

Farming News:

The United States trades with communist China and Vietnam. Why not communist Cuba? Over the years there has been much political discussion about trade with Cuba. How do you handle criticism of Alabama’s growing export business to Cuba?

Commissioner Sparks:

I handle it this way and it’s very simple. In my opinion it is absolutely wrong to have a forty-year embargo on a country that’s ninety miles off the coast of this country. I think it’s wrong when this country puts policies in place that say that if you are a Cuban American, you can only travel back to Cuba one time every three years. For example, if you went to Cuba this year to visit your mom and dad for Christmas then you go back to the United States after the visit. Six months later you get a call that your father has passed away; by the policies that we have in this country today, you can’t go back to your father’s funeral. That’s not what we teach in America and that’s not what we’re all about. 

I can remember President Reagan standing up and saying ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ We no longer have the Soviet Union. Hopefully, some day we’ll have a president who will stand up and say, ‘We’re going to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba and we’re going to become a partner.’ Maybe when the time comes and that regime changes, when that government changes, we’ll be in a better position to be good neighbors. We certainly need to be cautious but we need to be at the table with them. Policies need to be across the board, they need to be fair and I’m going to continue to do everything I can to push it forward. 

Farming News:

Since the food and medicine trade exemption with Cuba (the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act) was authorized by President Clinton in 2000, almost $715 million in agricultural products have been sent there from the United States. What sort of impact on Alabama’s economy would lifting all trade sanctions with Cuba have?

Commissioner Sparks:

It would be enormous. When U.S. trade first started out, exports were at about $400 million a year and then it went up to $700 million. This year alone they’re going to go over a billion dollars in agricultural goods from the United States. It’s become a very good market for Iowa for grain products, it’s become a very good market for Maine and Virginia for their apple products.

Alabama businesses signed contracts for eighteen million just on the last visit alone. We have really probably signed nearly forty million in contracts for Alabama products. You can convert that into many more millions of dollars in jobs; you’ve got forklift drivers that load the trucks, truck drivers that move the food from point A to point B, you’ve got the pickers in the field, the packers, the suppliers, the producers…it’s got to create jobs and that’s what we want to do is to create jobs for Alabama. 

Farming News:

About a dozen legislators were able to go to Cuba with you last month for the trade negotiations. What kind of impact will that have on Alabama’s export growth?

Commissioner Sparks:

It will have an enormous impact. The legislators that go to Cuba have a chance to see first hand the opportunities that are there. Our legislature struggles every year trying to put budgets together and getting together enough money. They’re always looking for ways to make the economy of Alabama better and create jobs. I think that when they walk away down there, they see the opportunities that are available and, hopefully, some day the relationships that we’re building with Cuba will help us put things better here in Alabama. Any time you can create more jobs and any time you can promote our companies and our businesses, it certainly helps our government function better. I can say that 99% of the people from the legislature that have gone to Cuba have walked away impressed and excited about the future. 

I know Alabama has done millions of dollars of business that we would not have been able to do if I hadn’t taken the approach that I took. I’m proud of it; that we’ve been able to help our farmers, to help our docks in Mobile. 

Right now the only opportunities we have with them are medicine and agriculture, but the leaders of Cuba see how important Alabama is to their future. There are eleven million people in Cuba and I feel very strongly they ought to be eating Alabama chicken. They ought to be using Alabama cotton to put clothes on their backs. They ought to be using Alabama grains to 

makes breads they eat. They should feed their livestock with our corn. Alabama is sitting on the front row of helping Cuba feed their eleven million hungry people. 

We have been able to negotiate deals that will allow them to have a better food supply than what they’ve had in the past. I think Alabama farmers are excited about it and I think they’re proud to be able to build that relationship and build that market and say that we’ve stepped forward to feed the hungry in a country that’s only ninety miles off of our coast. 

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Date Last Updated January, 2006