Cuba trip: Ventura returns; several deals in works

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Sun Sep 29 04:27:04 MDT 2002


(Very detailed and sometimes amusing report.
Ventura didn't bother with the ritual meeting
with dissidents, either. Thoroughly enjoyable.)
===================================

Posted on Sun, Sep. 29, 2002
CUBA TRIP: Ventura returns; several deals in works
BY JIM RAGSDALE
St. Paul, Minnesota Pioneer Press

HAVANA - Gov. Jesse Ventura left Havana Saturday after a
three-day visit to this complicated, crumbling island city,
hoping his last international trip as Minnesota's salesman
to the world would help push the United States and Cuba
closer together.

Ventura talked JFK assassination theories and pro wrestling
technique with Cuban President Fidel Castro, had long,
cigar-laced lunches with high-ranking ministers, exhorted
University of Havana students to dream big and work hard,
and served as the American pitch man for U.S. capitalists
hoping to sell beans, rice, soy products and other
foodstuffs to Castro's communist government. Minnesota
officials left with several deals in the works.

Ventura came to the off-limits country to promote the U.S.
Food and Agribusiness Exposition, a trade fair where
producers from more than 30 states were displaying their
wares for Castro and his legions of bureaucratic buyers.
Ventura and state agriculture commissioner Gene Hugoson
also were publicly and privately promoting the bounty from
Minnesota's farms and the dozen Minnesota companies at the
exposition.

Hugoson, who sat in on Ventura's one-hour session with
Castro on Friday as well as a three-hour lunch with Cuban
Agriculture Minister Alfredo Jordan on Thursday, said the
Cubans are hot to buy. "The Minister of Agriculture is ready
to sign yesterday," he said Saturday, though he added that
the bureaucratic wheels turn slowly.

Hugoson said Minnesota has several long-range deals in the
works as a result of the meetings. He said Jordan is very
interested in buying feed for protein-starved Cuban dairy
cattle, whose milk production is limited by their sparse
diet, and also wants to work with Minnesota cattle breeders
to purchase specially bred livestock that can withstand the
hot, humid climate.

He said he talked to Jordan about building ethanol fuel
plants that consume sugar cane rather than corn. And he said
the trip gave private companies a chance to get to know the
buyers in the Cuban government ministries so they can form
long-lasting relationships. "It's all about the
relationship-building," Hugoson said.

It wasn't all business.

In one of Ventura's last acts on the island, he won a dance
contest.

Ventura, traveling with Chief of Staff Steven Bosacker,
spokesman John Wodele and the governor's security detail,
left Havana Saturday morning and arrived in the Twin Cities
midday Saturday. A three-man delegation from the state
Department of Agriculture is staying through the weekend to
attend the last sessions of the historic agriculture
products show that brought Ventura to Havana.

"I think it's a great way to end it," he said of this last
of seven international journeys he as made to promote trade
and tourism.

About a dozen Minnesota companies, ranging from industry
giants Cargill and Hormel Foods to Humidipak, a
Wayzata-based company that makes packaging for cigars and
other moisture-sensitive items, came to Havana to show their
wares at the trade show. Booths were spread out in Havana's
Pabexpo Exhibition Center, where Hormel offered Spam
samples, Archer Daniels Midland fried up soy burgers and St.
Paulite Kurt Koestler showed off the canned vegetable line
of Chiquita Processed Foods, based in New Richmond, Wis.

Koestler, area manager for international sales for the
company, explained the lure of this small, poor island for
American capitalists in search of new markets.
"Psychologically, it's the great frontier, the great
unknown," he said.

That was part of the allure for Ventura, who has long wanted
to travel to Cuba and has been looking for an opportunity to
visit.

The Havana he saw from his three-Mercedes motorcade was, he
said, "frozen in time," a place where global economics and
geopolitical tactics are visible in daily life.

The pre-Revolution '56 Chevy and the Cold War Soviet Lada
still rule the roadways, along with Soviet-made motorcycles
with el nino or grandmain the sidecar.

Ventura, whose trip was criticized by anti-Castro forces in
the U.S. State Department and in the Cuban-American exile
community of Miami, was effusive in his praise of Cuba and
of Castro. He argued that people-to-people diplomacy will
force governments to change, told huge crowds of reporters
of the benefits of free trade and kept his evenings free to
see the town.

And to enter a dance contest.

On Friday night, his last night in Havana, Ventura said he
saw a show at Club Havana and was selected as a participant
in a Cuban dance contest. "I won," Ventura crowed Saturday
morning, and joked that he may have to come back to defend
his title.

U.S. sponsors of the exposition said they will pay the costs
for Ventura and his two aides. Costs for Ventura's security
guards and for the Department of Agriculture delegation are
being paid by the taxpayers.

Business leaders and the Cuban government saw the exposition
as an historic opening in the frigid relations between the
small island nation and the superpower across the Straits.
It is believed to be the first such display of U.S. food
products since the Cuban revolution of 1959.

The event was sanctioned by the U.S. government, which now
allows sales of food and medical supplies to Cuba. But
President Bush supports keeping the rest of the four-decade
trade embargo in place until Castro allows free elections
and free enterprise in this state-controlled, totalitarian
nation. The anti-Castro Cuban-American community, a
politically powerful group based in Miami, argue that
dealing with Cuba helps prop up a repressive regime that
tolerates no dissent, denies basic rights and supports
international terrorist organizations.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, among others, urged Ventura to meet
with dissidents and human rights activists, as recent
high-profile American visitors have done. But Ventura,
hustled about by a retinue of Cuban government officials,
made no attempt to do so. And after his meeting with Castro,
he said he and el commandante agree on the need to end the
embargo. Of human rights, Ventura argued that bringing food
to people is a human right also.

He praised Cuba's health care system, which he did not visit
during his trip, and he accepted Castro's statement that the
reason no American flags are burned in Cuba- where there is
no right to free expression-is because Cubans love American
people. And while Ventura extolled people-to-people
contacts, the people Ventura and other U.S. business people
met and dealt with all work for Fidel Castro's government.

It was Castro who was the star of the trade show.

The 76-year-old president worked the convention hall like a
U.S. politician, giving Cuban admirers a kiss on the cheek
and latching on to Cliff and Seth Kaehler of St. Charles,
Minn., who showed Castro the livestock their father, Ralph,
brought down for the show. The Kaehler family was Castro's
guest at Wednesday night's gala at Karl Marx Theatre, where
Cuban singers and dancers performed for trade-show guests.

Castro hoisted champagne with visiting reporters to
celebrate signing of an egg-purchase deal and personally
invited reporters to the theatrical show. He was the
grandfatherly Fidel to the Kaehler boys and to Ventura, and
the image of Castro bottle-feeding the Kaehler's bison was
beamed around the world. This Fidel clearly wanted to
project an image of friendship and hospitality, and Ventura
was among those who basked in the warmth.
------------------------------------------------------------
Jim Ragsdale can be reached at
jragsdale at pioneerpress.com
or (651) 228-5529.




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