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Trading Places

Texas, that famous bastion of conservatism, has become a leading exporter of agricultural products to communist Cuba — second only to Louisiana among the 50 states.

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The ships bound for Havana aren't loaded with weapons, and rebel soldiers don’t stand guard on their bows. Instead, they set sail from Texas ports carrying basic food staples — and they do so with the blessing of one of the state's top Republican elected officials.

Texas, that famous bastion of conservatism, has quietly become a leading exporter to communist Cuba — second only to Lousiana among the 50 states. The U.S. government still has the island nation on its list of countries that promote state-sponsored terrorism, but millions of dollars in American agricultural products move there annually, resulting in hundreds of jobs for Texans during a down economy. “Texas products are attractive and high quality, and Cuba wants to do business with us,” said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples. “We know that they are doing business with those that are basically enemies of the United States, but the more opportunities that we have to develop relationships, the more we can have a better situation with a country that is so close to us.”

Parr Rosson, the director of Texas A&M’s Center for North American Studies, said that in 2009, $85 million in goods left Texas bound for Havana (Louisiana shipped $241 million). The U.S. as a whole sent $528 million in goods to Cuba, a dip from the $710 million shipped in 2008. That year, approximately $143 million in food and agriculture — mainly wheat, corn, poultry, and vegetable and animal fats — left through Texas ports. Slightly less than a third, about $45 million worth, were products grown and processed in Texas. 

By Rosson’s estimates, for every dollar in Texas agriculture shipped to Cuba, there's an additional $0.91 produced in additional business activity: That $45 million in 2008 generated another $41 million to support the trade relationship. It also created more than 750 jobs in Texas. “We are getting a sizable economic impact from these products,” he said, “and we haven’t had any [backlash] at all.”

The trade relationship is legal, Rosson said, as long as participants comply with the Trade Sanctions Reform Act. “What the law does is allow an exemption to the embargo for food and agricultural products,” he said, “but it does not open up trade entirely.”

The very fact that the U.S. allows trade to Cuba raises the eyebrows of many who are still under the impression that the country is completely isolated from the U.S. politically. Even some government officials aren’t up to speed, said Cindy Thomas, the founder of the Texas-Cuba Trade Alliance. “It’s not well known in Texas or the country,” Thomas said. “We’ve gone as far as to talk to commerce officials in Texas who speak at our workshops, and they come back to us and say, ‘You can’t sell to Cuba.’”

Thomas said she has to remind officials about the exemption. “We [tell them], ‘You guys issued the licenses,’” she said. “It doesn’t filter down very well.”

Thomas has traveled for more than 10 years to Cuba and said she returned from her 40th trip last month. She sees progress, though she admits it's limited. “I don’t think anyone can point to anything that the embargo has done positively, which was the original intent of the law,” she said.

Strained relations

“We do not put any preconditions whatsoever upon establishing relations [with the United States], but at the same time we are not prepared to accept any preconditions ourselves.”

That statement was made by Argentinean-born Cuban rebel Ernesto “Che” Guevara shortly after the successful revolution of Fidel Castro and his bearded rebels in the late 1950s. It was an early sign that the already strained relations between Castro and the U.S. would only dissolve in the years to follow.

Rosson said that despite the expanded trade, much of the ill will still lingers. “This is the most political issue I’ve dealt with in a long time,” he said. One example, he said, is the U.S. goverment's recent shift in the way it allows Cuba to pay for its goods. “[The money] has to go through a third country, and the Cubans like to use a French bank,” he said. “Once it’s there, it is then wired to a U.S. bank. Once the U.S. bank gets it, under the current rules, we can release the cargo. The boat can then leave the dock.”

When asked why the change from the former policy, where money could be wired directly from Cuba, Rosson said it was “punitive.” “It runs up the cost of doing business with our companies,” he said. “It’s a way to tighten the regulations in retaliation for something Cuba did.” What Cuba “did,” he explained, was jail dissidents and block anti-Castro propaganda. “It’s a lot of tit-for-tat stuff. It's just more of the same.”

The Cubans have their own way of reminding the U.S. that it has withstood the pressure from nine U.S. presidents. In its annual report, the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council said Cuba decreased purchases of U.S. products in 2009 “to increase the motivation of United States-based companies, organizations; state and local government representatives; and members of the United States Congress to be more visible in their lobbying efforts for changes in United States policy, law, and regulations.” The Cubans also tout the “financial largesse” of the Chinese and Venezuelan governments as reasons its interest in purchasing goods from the U.S. could further decline.

"The Green Party"

Despite the continued rift, some Texas lawmakers are open to expanding even more financial and diplomatic avenues with Cuba. State Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, authored and successfully passed a resolution in 2001 requesting that Congress ease up on its trade sanctions with Cuba. “I have been convinced for quite some time that the only people that are suffering in Cuba because of the trade embargo are everyday folks,” he said. “Castro and his lieutenants — the people that are in with the Communist Party government — they are all living well with the European and Mexican investments that are going on there.”

Menendez’s father fought against the rebels during the Bay of Pigs invasion and was jailed shortly thereafter. He was offered a chance to leave after his release and thought he would one day return. “Dad said to [his family], ‘I’ll come back as soon as [Castro] is gone.' He never made it back,” Menendez said.

What Menendez would like to see is more outreach, and even more economic gains. Despite some backlash from GOP leaders when he introduced his bill — he recalled that one Republican was staunchly against a resolution that would “embarrass” George W. Bush — he said he knows how to speak their language. “In the end, most business people are people of the green party: the almighty dollar,” he said. “If they are going to make money, they are going to make money.”

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said Texans should toe a fine line with Cuba. “Anything that we can do to create markets for our agriculture and produce creates jobs here in America, so I support that,” he said. “The challenge we have is that we don’t want to prop up a dictator — somebody who basically runs a police state and is crushing free expression and free political expression in that country.”

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