April 12, 2007 in Business

By visiting Cuba, Otter puts trade before politics

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review
 

Hard telling what Idaho Gov. Butch Otter is up to in Cuba.

He arrived in Havana on Tuesday, but since checking back with his staff in Boise has been semi-incommunicado. Although his hotel rents out cell phones, the fees are apparently exorbitant and the service sporadic. You have to leave a message at the hotel, or with a member of the delegation traveling with him, and hope he calls back. Same with e-mail. And faxes are not getting through.

That sounds like an opportunity for makers of telecommunications equipment. Unfortunately, U.S. firms are not allowed to sell their gear in Cuba. American firms can sell almost nothing in Cuba except medical supplies, food, and wood products.

Which, of course, explains the presence in Cuba of Otter and 35 other Idaho government and business officials. While the Bush administration persists in pursuing a Cold War with the failing Fidel Castro, Idaho and other states have undertaken their own diplomatic and trade initiatives. They have been remarkably successful given a trade embargo imposed 45 years ago.

Thanks to the limited trade window former U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane, helped open in 2000, the U.S. has become the largest provider of foodstuffs to Cuba. American farmers sold $340 million worth of chicken, wheat and other farm products there last year, putting Cuba at No. 34 among all nations as a buyer of U.S. food exports.

Sales since 2001 exceed $2 billion.

Two weeks ago, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman returned from Cuba with a contract for almost $17 million in new sales of wheat and pork. The deal brings Nebraska’s total sales to $60 million. The most recent sale might have been bigger but for increasing U.S. commodity prices.

So far, Idaho has sold very little in Cuba. But if anyone can build a trade surplus with that country, Otter can. Not only is this his fourth visit — he made his first three as congressman — the former J.R. Simplot salesman has apparently established something of a mano-a-mano relationship with Castro. Whether he will meet the ailing dictator or Raúl Castro, his stand-in, probably will not be known until he gets a summons. That’s been the case during past visits.

Persistence pays off when building trade relationships. Heineman, for example, has been to Cuba three times. Also, Otter spokesman Jon Hanian says Otter kept the delegation relatively small because he wanted to give the agriculture representatives room to make some sales.

“We’re trying to do more business there than we’ve done in the past,” Hanian says.

Meanwhile, fellow Idahoan Sen. Larry Craig, a companion of Otter’s on an earlier Cuba trip, is co-sponsoring a Senate bill that, among other things, would allow U.S. oil companies to operate in Cuban waters and to sell drilling equipment to the Cubans. There are early signs waters around the island may hold some of the oil riches the U.S. has been exploiting for years in the Gulf of Mexico.

Craig and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., have also co-sponsored past legislation to lift some of the credit restrictions that have impeded more robust Cuban purchases of U.S. food. Cantwell has visited Cuba twice.

Still, the Bush Administration continues to make clear its opposition to any liberalization of trade with Cuba. In February, Cuban-born Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez called those who believe trade will weaken Communism in Cuba naïve. Lifting the embargo, he said, will not create the market for U.S. goods that supporters of more open trade believe.

He likened Cuba to North Korea, apparently not mentioning that two weeks earlier the administration had put the U.S. on the road to a better relationship with Kim Jong-il than it has with Castro.

Nethercutt says he finds the administration approach discouraging.

“You need to build relationships,” he says. “Trade is a great vehicle for that.”

Otter is right where he should be, doing right by the people of Idaho.


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