Fidel Castro to Meet California's Dancing Raisins

Walter Lippmann walterlx at
Thu Sep 26 09:02:20 MDT 2002

(This is the Wall Street Journal's coverage
of the Havana trade fair on the eve of its
opening. Many of the key elements in the
situation are spelled out in this article, not
least of which is the final paragraph.)

Fidel Castro Will Soon Meet
California's Dancing Raisins


HAVANA -- In what is likely to be the biggest gathering of
U.S. citizens in Cuba since the nation's 1959 revolution
sent most gringos packing, executives from nearly 300 U.S.
companies will converge Thursday on this crumbling Caribbean
capital for a five-day food fair with a controversial twist:
the chance to sell goods to Fidel Castro.

Venerable names like Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., the event's
chief sponsor, as well as ConAgra Foods Inc., Perdue Farms
Inc., Tyson Foods Inc. and others are jockeying for position
to sell the communist regime everything from buffaloes to
M&Ms. Among the likely guests are Minnesota Gov. Jesse
Ventura, three Republican congressmen, and "El Jefe"

Fair organizers expect Mr. Castro to drop by the exhibition
hall and go booth to booth. If so, he'll be treated to some
curious displays. Massachusetts-based egg wholesaler Radlo
Foods LLC has hired Howard Helmer, the "world's fastest
omelette maker," to whip up 30-second omelettes on 12
tabletop burners. ADM has built a 1950s-style diner to serve
soy burgers and soy malts. The California Raisin Marketing
Board has sent a pair of its mascots, the Dancing Raisins.
And Minnesota ranchers have shipped down a pair of buffalo

The historic fair is, of course, as much about politics as
it is about selling beer and biscuits. Cuban-American trade
supporters say it symbolizes the benefits of loosening the
41-year-old U.S. trade embargo -- an idea gathering steam in
Washington. Opponents, including some within the Bush
administration, say the food companies are setting
themselves up for a fall by doing business with the
mercurial Mr. Castro, whose government owes money to a
growing list of countries.

To many Americans, it may come as a surprise that any U.S.
products are sold in Cuba. But two years ago, Congress took
its first tentative steps toward loosening the embargo by
allowing direct food sales to the island as long as it pays
in cash. In the past year, Havana has obliged by snapping up
$120 million in wheat, corn, rice, beans, poultry, apples
and other U.S. products. And that figure may double by next
year, analysts say.

Ivette, a 23-year-old Cuban student, says U.S. poultry means
quality eating on the streets of Havana. "You can't usually
find chickens these days and when you do they are yellow and
scrawny," she says. "The second people hear American
chickens are on the shelf, there is practically a riot."

In what's likely to become the next big trend, U.S.
companies have also begun to sell Cuba packaged goods
ranging from baby food and breakfast cereals to Jack
Daniel's bourbon. The Cubans, saying they're interested in
much more, have published a list of 296 desired products,
including Philadelphia cream cheese, frozen waffles and dog
food. In some cases, the interest is very specific: Skippy
peanut butter, Jell-O and Spam. And, strangely enough for a
country famed for its sugar and tobacco, the Cubans are
putting out feelers to buy U.S. sweeteners and cigarettes.

During the fair, Cuba is expected to hand out a few new
multimillion-dollar contracts to U.S. companies and make its
case that doing away with the embargo altogether would be
good for U.S. business. "This historic event signals the
desire of a majority of Americans to restore normal trade
relations with Cuba," says Pedro Alvarez, chairman of the
state-run Alimport food agency that imports the U.S.

The surge of food sales to Cuba this year has revived
memories among many U.S. farm groups of the days before Mr.
Castro when Cuba was one of the biggest importers of U.S.
grain. Even with only one year of trade, Cuba already
represents an important new market for exporters of many
niche commodities. "It's been good business for us and for
Cuba," says Tony DeLio, vice president of marketing at ADM,
which has sold $52 million to Cuba in the past year.

The push to liberalize U.S. policy further has picked up
pace lately in Washington, thanks in large part to farm
groups in rural states like North Dakota, Missouri and
Nebraska. In the coming months, the battle will focus on
legislation to allow Americans to travel to Cuba, to send
unlimited funds to relatives, and to permit private
financing of food sales. The measures have already passed
the House but are awaiting approval in the Senate. President
Bush -- with the backing of anti-Castro exiles in Florida,
where his brother Gov. Jeb Bush is up for reelection in
November -- has promised to veto any moves to ease the
embargo. But doing so won't be easy because the legislation
has wide bipartisan support and may come as part of a bigger
appropriations bill.

Extending credit to Cuba, says Mr. Alvarez, could allow the
U.S. to again become the principal food supplier to the
island, which spends about $1 billion a year on food
imports. Scrapping the law barring American tourists from
visiting, he adds, would provide Cuba with millions of
dollars in tourism cash that could go right back to the U.S.
through food sales.

But there is an implicit tit for tat in this: If Washington
doesn't bend a little, the food purchases could begin to dry
up. Even after Congress lifted the embargo on food sales two
years ago, Mr. Castro said he would not buy "a single grain"
of American rice unless some of the strict conditions were
lifted. He changed his mind after a devastating hurricane
rolled across the island last October.

With unfinished business piling up in the Senate, the Cuba
legislation could fall by the wayside. If it does, Cuba's
patience may be tested. "The big question is: Will the
Cubans be patient with Congress as various groups try to
work this through?" says Brian Alexander, policy director
for the anti-embargo Cuba Policy Foundation.

Meanwhile, anti-Castro activists say making any kind of deal
with Mr. Castro is risky. To pay its bills so far, Cuba has
used money that could otherwise have paid its debts to
countries that have long been food suppliers. Diplomats say
France recently froze $175 million in short-term credits to
Cuba after it failed to pay back money from a similar credit
deal in 2000.

Several prominent Bush aides also strongly oppose any
opening to Cuba. Cuban-born Otto Reich, the top diplomat for
Latin America at the State Department, caused a flap this
month by saying that U.S. politicians who travel to Cuba act
as "props" for Mr. Castro and that he hoped the businessmen
attending the trade fair wouldn't engage in "sexual tourism"
during their stay.

But there are other signs of softening even within the
administration. The fair's organizer, Peter Nathan,
struggled for three years to win U.S. approval for this
week's exhibition, but since then he has received wide
bureaucratic support within the Treasury and Commerce

Write to David Luhnow at david.luhnow at and Neil King
at neil.king at

Updated September 26, 2002

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