Top Cuban diplomat talks trade with Virginia officials
Thursday January 8, 2015 06:47 PM
The Associated Press
(c) 2015, The Washington Post.
RICHMOND, Va. — Cuba’s top diplomat in the United States traveled to
Virginia’s capital this week amid new hope that sweeping changes in
U.S.-Cuba policy will bring major business opportunities to the
commonwealth if trade opens up with the island nation.
Jose Cabanas, the chief of the Cuban Interests Section, talked trade
with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, toured the Capitol designed by
Thomas Jefferson and spoke with business and educational groups seeking
closer ties to the island nation.
The meeting was scheduled before President Barack Obama announced plans
last month to fund new diplomatic operations with Cuba and ease
restrictions on commerce and banking. But state leaders said the
potential for a new era of detente only strengthens Virginia’s
“How fast it will go, I don’t know. How soon we have results, I don’t
know,” Cabanas said over lunch this week with Virginia Secretary of
Agriculture and Forestry Todd Haymore, who has led eight official trade
missions to Havana. But, he told Haymore, “You have been pioneering the
effort on behalf of your authorities and your people in Virginia, and
that has to pay off.”
Virginia has been trading with Cuba for more than a decade, when
restrictions were loosened to allow exports of agricultural and medical
products. Now the state is Cuba’s third-largest U.S. trading partner,
behind Louisiana and Georgia, with annual agricultural sales at $40
million in 2013, the last year for which data was available.
With a foot already firmly in the door, Virginia leaders say they are
poised to make the most of expanded trade if Obama succeeds in ending
the broader embargo. The effort remains a work in progress, as
Republican leaders in Congress explore ways to stop him.
In the meantime, Cabanas, still had to get permission from the State
Department before he could accept McAuliffe’s invitation to visit
Richmond this week. Cuban diplomats in Washington cannot travel beyond
the Beltway without special approval, just as U.S. diplomats in Havana
cannot leave that city without the go-ahead from Cuban authorities.
Four successive governors have courted Cuba, starting with now-Sen. Mark
Warner. The Democrat wanted to lead a Virginia trade mission to the
island when he took office in 2002, taking advantage of liberalization
that came about when President Bill Clinton signed the Trade Sanctions
Reform and Export Enhancement Act. Advisers, worried about the optics of
a potential sit-down with Fidel Castro, talked him out of it.
Warner instead sent his commerce and trade secretary, who helped
commonwealth farmers sell about $800,000 in apples and soybeans to Cuba
in 2003 — the first exports from Virginia to Cuba since President John
F. Kennedy imposed a trade embargo at the height of the Cold War in 1962.
The annual trade missions and other outreach continued under governors
Timothy Kaine, Robert McDonnell and now McAuliffe, with sales peaking at
$66 million a year in 2011 before Cuba’s souring economy forced cutbacks.
One constant during the last three governors has been Haymore, who was
agriculture commissioner under Kaine and secretary under McDonnell and
McAuliffe. While personal relationships often play a role in business
deals, that’s especially true in Cuba, where sellers work with just one
buyer: the Cuban government.
Virginia growers send their own representatives and brokers to negotiate
with Alimport, the Cuban government’s food procurement arm. But Cuban
government officials expect an American counterpart to be in on the deal
at some level, and that’s where Haymore has come in.
“It just seemed to make sense, the more I went there — it was first and
foremost about trade — but then believing the dialogue that we were
having could serve a bigger purpose of making sure when things change
between the United States and Cuba, Virginia could be right there in the
forefront,” Haymore said.
Haymore and McAuliffe visited Cabanas in Washington last year, ahead of
the secretary’s November trade mission to Cuba. McAuliffe had a brief
history with Cuba and Virginia agriculture sales that predated his
governorship, and it was not an especially happy one.
In April 2010, after losing his first bid for governor and preparing for
his second, McAuliffe traveled to the communist nation for three days as
a pro-bono pitchman for Virginia wine and apples. His efforts fell flat,
surprising associates who thought his skills as a legendary political
fundraiser and deal-maker would translate well.
McAuliffe had more success last fall in his meeting with Cabanas, when
he invited the diplomat to visit him in Richmond.
“The governor is a promoter, seven days a week, 24 hours, of everything
and anything related to Virginia — from history, to agriculture to
culture,” Cabañas said in an interview with The Washington Post, which
took place during his lunch with Haymore.
Cabanas has traveled around the country — with the requisite State
Department permission, of course — to speak to various groups. But he
has done so at the invitation of business groups or mayors. His trip
Wednesday was his first as the guest of a governor. He never dreamed
when he accepted that just weeks ahead of his visit, Obama would unfurl
a new Cuba policy.
“At that time, we didn’t have a clue that could happen,” he said. “But I
think that works as an example of, no matter what the obstacles are, if
you believe in something, you have to push. And you have to work. …
You have to look ahead, always thinking about the day after.”
There is hope now that Virginia will soon be able to peddle more than
soybeans, apples, poultry and pork to the tropical island. Cabanas and
Virginia officials also discussed how other products, ranging from
information technology to heavy equipment, could eventually be part of
the mix. Loosening banking restrictions could also boost sales of the
agricultural products that are already permitted but sometimes get
pushed out of reach by requirements that Cuba pay cash for U.S. products.
“Cuba’s long been a valued trading partner here in Virginia and the
governor believes we are poised to lead in a new era of economic
relations between our country and Cuba,” McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said.
In addition to his closed-door meeting with McAuliffe at the governor’s
mansion, Cabanas met with representatives of the Virginia Farm Bureau,
the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce and the Virginia Commonwealth
University’s school of business. He also toured the Capitol and lunched
at Amuse, a restaurant inside the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Museum director Alex Nyerges stopped by the table to express interest in
a cultural exchange like the one the VMFA has with China’s Palace
Museum, which made a current exhibit of Chinese art possible. Nyerges
presented Cabanas with a handsome coffee table book on the exhibit, and
then the diplomat got back to his meal.
Juan Jacomino, press secretary for Cabanas, tucked into his lunch of
lamb over polenta and offered high praise: “Tastes like Cuba.”
Source: Top Cuban diplomat talks trade with Virginia officials | Reading
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