State ag and business leaders want trade with Cuba

State ag and business leaders want trade with Cuba A delegation of South Dakota business and agricultural leaders have their sights set on potential new markets for state products. The group met here recently with representatives of the government of Cuban President Fidel Castro.

"Reuters news service has reported that Cuban officials expect to increase food purchases from the United States by at least 70 percent this year," said Dallas Tonsager, executive director of the South Dakota Value-Added Agricultural Development Center. "South Dakota can and should gain a share of that market."

Members of the South Dakota group met with Cuban representative Dagoberto Rodriquez and members of his staff at the Swiss Embassy. While the United States and Cuba have not had formal diplomatic relations since Castro came to power more than 45 years ago, both countries maintain missions through the neutral embassies of Switzerland.

"This is an outstanding opportunity to increase exports of South Dakota wheat and other agricultural commodities," South Dakota Wheat Commission board member Gregg Krebsbach of Rapid City said. "Cuba is a natural trading partner for American farmers. Our country was Cuba's number one customer prior to the revolution."

Cuba began purchasing food from the United States two years ago after Congress eased the U.S. trade embargo to allow the purchase of agricultural products for cash. So far this year Cuban purchases have totaled about $238 million and are expected to reach $320 million in 2004. Most of the money has been spent on corn, wheat, chicken, rice and soy products.

"We had some very positive discussions with the Cuban officials," said Pepsi Cola Bottling Company President Early Norby of Huron. "This could be the beginning of an important new trading relationship for us. We're hopeful that a trade mission to Cuba can be arranged in the coming months."

The South Dakotans also met with U.S. officials at the State Department. "Their message was pretty negative," said Lewis Bainbridge of Ethan. "They told us the Cubans have no money and can't or won't pay for what they purchase."

However Bainbridge and other South Dakotans think the State Department attitude has less to do with economic realities than it does with domestic U.S. politics and the importance of the Cuban exile community in Florida.

South Dakota Farmers Union President Dennis Wiese said the best way to moderate and eventually change the Cuban regime is through open trade relations.

"The policy of isolation has been in place for two generations," he said. "It obviously hasn't worked."

Other participants in the Washington meetings included South Dakota Wheat Growers Director Jerry Mason of Frankfort, South Dakota Department of Agriculture staff member Robert Weyrich of Pierre, First Western Bancorp Inc. officer Paul Christian of Huron, South Dakota State University Dean of Agriculture and Biological Sciences Fred Cholick and South Dakota Farmers Union Director John Sumption of Frederick.

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