From Cuba, seeking trade relations
By KRIS HUNDLEY, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- From the port to agribusiness leaders, Cuba's highest-ranking diplomat in Washington did some important networking in Tampa this week.
Dagoberto Rodriguez Barrera held a round of informal meetings with business people, including a number with ties to the port and local agricultural interests.
Rodriguez Barrera, 47, is chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. (Because Cuba and the U.S. do not have diplomatic relations, there is no Cuban embassy.) A graduate in journalism from the University of Havana, he is a career diplomat, having spent 20 years with Cuba's ministry of foreign affairs, specializing in North America.
After a brief visit with Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, Rodriguez Barrera spoke with the St. Petersburg Times. His message: Lift the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba, allow American tourists to visit freely, and the Tampa Bay area could be one of the chief economic beneficiaries.
Q: What brings you to Tampa?
A: I came at the invitation of some business people about the opportunities the Cuban market provides and the realities of today. And I came clearly because we believe Tampa is an important city for us. It has been a myth in U.S. policy with Cuba that the state of Florida is very opposed to Cuba. I had the impression that was wrong; that maybe it was true in Miami or Calle Ocho, but that there are people in Florida who really want to stop looking to the past and look to the future.
I was in Tampa two years ago at the invitation of a law firm, and I had a good impression about what might happen. I found on this visit there has been more education about Cuba and more warmness.
Tampa's geographic position makes it an excellent gateway for a trade route to Cuba. The port of Tampa has all the requirements for being one of the most important for our developing relationship.
Q: Earlier this month you were quoted as saying Cuba would not increase its purchases of U.S. agricultural products unless there were "significant changes" in U.S. law. Do you see trade continuing if there are no changes?
A: We will keep buying at current levels, which has been about $260-million since November 2001, because it is good for Cuba and good for the American farmer. But for us it is very difficult to increase the amount of money we're using for this purpose unless there are changes in banking regulations between the two countries.
Now we have to send the money to a bank in Europe before the U.S. seller can release the goods. That is a very unusual way to develop a trade relationship. For us, in many ways it's a sacrifice to pay in cash. We don't have a large reserve of cash. If there were changes in the travel restrictions, it would generate more dollars to buy more food.
Q: People who support the embargo say the United States shouldn't extend credit to Cuba because it does not pay its bills. In fact, the Cuban government estimates its debt to foreign suppliers at more than $10-billion. Why should the United States change from its cash-only position?
A: That argument is just an excuse for keeping the embargo in place. The bottom line is we have been making our payments to American companies for more than a year. Nobody has complained. So we've shown we have the money because we have been paying them.
Q: Prior to being named head of the Cuban Interests Section in August 2001, you acted as the section's expert on congressional affairs from 1995 to 1999. What kind of changes do you see in U.S. attitudes toward Cuba since then?
A: A lot of changes for the better, but not from the government's side. I don't see any sign of changes on the part of the executive branch; on the contrary.
But overwhelmingly the majority of the House and Senate support change (on the embargo); they demonstrated that through their votes last year. And there have been changes within American public opinion. A recent poll showed almost 70 percent of Americans support lifting the restrictions or the whole embargo.
Q: What action do you expect to see Congress take this session regarding Cuba?
A: It will be a very tough session. We have to see if a war (with Iraq) starts. That could change the whole debate.
But I think we'll see an amendment or legislation to promote the idea of lifting travel restrictions to Cuba. And I think the vast majority of Congress will vote in favor.
We may also see an effort to expand trade relations, either with the number of products allowed for export or maybe to provide for private financing.
Q: There have been news stories suggesting that Cuba has been developing biological weapons. What is your response?
A: That is totally false and I challenge anyone to go to Cuba and see for himself. Our lab is open and more than 3,000 visitors went to that place, including former President Jimmy Carter. The only thing produced there are vaccines, which are unique in the world.
Q: The relationship between Cuba and the United States has been strained recently because of several spy scandals, including the admission of a senior Pentagon official, Ana Belen Montes, that she had been spying for the Cubans.
A: The United States also expelled Cuban officials from Washington and the United Nations for spying, but they couldn't present a single example of wrongdoing. It was just to get even.
This is the reality and I think it is the result of a lack of communication and 40 years of hostility and difficult relations. That's why we're proposing international cooperation in areas of mutual concern, like the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking. But the bottom line is that in many ways the U.S. government has been afraid of reaching compromises.
Q: How do you feel about the growing power of the U.S. dollar in Cuba and the fact that Cuban nurses and engineers are taking jobs in the tourist industry to get those dollars?
A: The U.S. dollar is a reality we have to deal with. It's not happening because we want it to. After we lost Soviet support, we were obliged to introduce the dollar.
As for nurses and engineers going into tourism, that's an exaggeration. It's not true. If there are 2,000 or 3,000 people who have changed jobs, I would be surprised. But if they find a job as a taxi driver that gives them more money and more resources for living, that's good.
Q: Do you see any signs of improvement in Cuba's economy?
A: The Cuban economy was basically hit hard. We had three hurricanes in less than a year, with $2.5-billion lost. Sugar and nickel prices have been low. Then there was a slowdown in tourism, though now we're seeing a certain recovery.
At the same time we're keeping a free education system and free health care, which means our economy functions. How do you do that if your economy is not improving?
Q: In recent months, you have traveled to several key farm states, including Wisconsin, Minnesota and Arkansas, promoting lifting the embargo. Do you plan to continue this lobbying?
A: We will go any place that invites us. Our plan is to reach out to convey a feeling of friendship. The foundation of the embargo is a lack of information and communication between Cuba and America. So I'm trying to open as many channels as possible and invite as many Americans as I can to Cuba.
-- Kris Hundley can be reached at email@example.com or (727)892-2996.
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