Cuba's future still holds many unknowns

February 24, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Less than 100 miles from the U.S.A. is an island of mystery and potential, a market the size of Florida, with 11 million people. There, some people still drive Fords and Chevrolets made in Detroit 50 years ago — but not by choice. Blame it on Fidel Castro.

Many people believe something will change soon in the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.

"Nobody knows what's going to happen" when the Castros are no longer in power, said Tom Gjelten. Whether Cuba continues on in a hard-line Marxist form of government or becomes more democratic and open to American investment and products is "a great mystery," he added.

Gjelten was at Aquinas College last week to speak to the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan. He covers intelligence and other national security issues for National Public Radio News and has been to Cuba about 20 times.

His latest book is all about Cuba and business — a very famous business, in particular. "Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba; A Biography of a Cause" is a history of modern Cuba, told through the history of the Bacardi rum family. The Bacardis were always Cuban nationalists, from the mid-19 century on, and did their best to help drive the Spanish out. Years later, the head of the company supported Castro in his push to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista, but the Bacardi relationship with Castro changed dramatically after he became Cuba's dictator and nationalized all business in Cuba.

In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that relaxed some of the long-time U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba, allowing some sales of food and medicine to Cuba. In 2004, $382 million worth of food went from the U.S. to Cuba. The U.S. is now the most important food supplier to Cuba, accounting for more than one-fourth of the island's total food/agriculture product imports.

Among those shipments five years ago were as much as 250,000 pounds of turkey that originated at Michigan Turkey Producers cooperative in Grand Rapids.

Poultry is the second largest agricultural commodity shipped to Cuba, being worth about $45 million in 2006.

"Poultry is very inexpensive protein," noted Chad Van Kley, commodity sales manager at Michigan Turkey.

The Michigan Turkey shipments to Cuba only lasted about six months, said Van Kley, because there are "better markets elsewhere."

Don Armock of Riveridge Produce Marketing Inc. in Sparta went to Cuba in 2005 with a group organized by the Michigan Department of Agriculture, to attend an international trade fair held by the Cuban government. Attempts to interest the Cuban government's purchasing arm in buying Michigan apples didn't pan out.

Armock said last year "strange politics" between Cuba and the U.S. were the problem, but maybe that is going to change.

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