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As a sign of the potentially huge consequences of the historic event, all parties to the deal are largely playing it down.

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The Cuba Files
The Gully's complete coverage of Cuba.

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The Gully's coverage of the Elián González saga.

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Camp X-Ray, one of the holding facilities for Taliban and al-Qaeda detainees. Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, January 10, 2002. REUTERS/U.S. Navy

Castro Sees Red (White and Blue)

by Corey Sabourin

JANUARY 15, 2002. A usually vociferous critic of U.S. international policy, Fidel Castro has met the housing of Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners at the U.S. naval station in Guant·namo Bay, Cuba, with thundering silence. Perhas it is the sound of fingers crossing.

In mid-December, three ships carrying U.S. corn, rice, and frozen chicken arrived in Havana bay, the first such shipments since an economic blockade was enacted by the United States against Cuba almost forty years ago. As a sign of the potentially huge consequences of the historic event, all parties to the deal are largely playing it down.

In 2000, Congress passed legislation that for the first time in decades allowed the sale of U.S. farm products to the communist country. Powerful agribusiness had long sought an exemption to the aging Cold War embargo, but even as Congress legalized the new, limited trading (which included medicine), it imposed burdensome financing requirements, including cash-only terms, which precluded Cuba from buying much, if anything at all.

Anyway, it wasn't like Cuban leader Fidel Castro was rushing to open his checkbook. He had nothing but contempt for the latest legislative two-headed baby: a hybrid of what Wall Street interests and the hard-line anti-Castro lobby wanted. Cuba would not buy "a single grain of rice" from the United States, said Castro, so long as the general embargo, including the travel ban, remained in effect.

Then September 11 happened. Cuba's large tourism sector, already suffering from the global economic downturn, stumbled badly; a month later, Hurricane Michelle hammered the island, destroying valuable export crops. Since 1996, the nation's economy had been growing at 4.7 percent annually. But now Cuba was vulnerable, and Archer Daniels Midland, the giant agribusiness, came courting with its biggest bouquet yet.

Uncle Sam's original food offer took the form of humanitarian aid in the wake of Hurricane Michelle. Castro, expressing gratitude, nonetheless refused the handout. Then he surprised everyone with a counteroffer, "a friendly response to a friendly gesture," as he put it: Cuba would buy the food, and pay cash.

Agribusiness, which in the past several years has sent delegations to Cuba only to have them return with little more than "mojito" hangovers, pressed Washington, and the U.S. Commerce Department quickly approved the sale and transport terms. So, on December 14, the M.V. Ikan Mazatlan left New Orleans carrying 24,000 metric tons of corn. Within several days, two other ships left U.S. ports bound for Havana.

Speaking on Cuban television about the arrival of Yankee frozen chicken, Castro deftly put his own spin on the news: "Nobody should say that we have spent one cent too much or that we have made this purchase for political reasons."

He emphasized that this was a one-off sale, done in order to replenish food and grain supplies. Earlier in December, acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Lino Gutierrez had assured a group in Florida that "the United States has not changed any rules — or moved in any way to encourage these sales." Meanwhile, agribusiness stuck to its humanitarian-aid script.

More shipments are expected in early 2002, and the total value of the deal is said to be $30 million.

Despite Castro's remarks to the contrary, Cuba watchers from across the political spectrum seem unanimous in viewing the sale as a political move. John S. Kavulich II, president of the anti-embargo U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, told The New York Times, "There is no question that the decision by the Cuban government to make these purchases is far more about politics than it is about economics," and said Cuba's regular trading partners could have offered food at lower costs.

"No one ever said Castro was stupid," said Dennis Hays, a former U.S. ambassador to Suriname and State Department functionary who is currently executive vice president of the pro-embargo Cuban American National Foundation. Hays labeled the cash food purchase "a clever move," adding, "it gets [Castro] a step closer to credits and unrestricted credit with the U.S." Favorable financing, Hays suggested, is, in Cuba's eyes, the real pot of gold at the end of the embargo rainbow.

Though far from certain, the end does seem to be near. Hurt by the Elián González case, pro-embargo groups, like CANF, have lately begun to shift some of their efforts to "democracy-building" initiatives inside Cuba, such as support for an independent press, which are more palatable to moderate U.S. politicians.

President Bush, who owes special thanks to the citizens of Florida for his electoral victory, and whose younger brother Jeb would like another term as the state's governor, may yet favor agribusiness over pro-embargo Cuban American voters. The Cuba Policy Foundation, a new group comprised of former diplomats that closely work with U.S. farm interests, has called the food sale "a first down" toward ending the blockade.

Shortly after the shipment, U.S. Senators Arlen Specter and Lincoln Chafee, both Republicans, met with Fidel Castro in Cuba earlier this month tackling difficult issues such as the war on terrorism and drug trafficking. Detaining Taliban prisoners at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay naval base was met first with silence by the Cuban government, then, as the prisoners arrived, with an offer "to cooperate in any other useful, constructive and human way that may arise."

A visit by six Democratic House members several days after the high-level Republican talks led pro-embargo Rep. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, to lament to The Miami Herald, "Everybody seems to be going over there to hug [Castro]. It certainly puts our policy, which includes the embargo, under pressure."

Related links:

For a politically moderate, thorough analysis of the pros and cons of the Cuban embargo, "A Strategic Flip-Flop in the Caribbean."

For Human Rights Watch World Report 2001: Cuba highlights human rights developments in the nation.

For the anti-embargo U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

For the hard-line pro-embargo Cuban American National Foundation.

For Complete Coverage Cuba

For Complete Coverage Americas

The Cuba Files
castroAnalysis of the facts from a radically moderate point of view. Including overviews of Cuban history, Cuba today, and U.S.-Cuba policy.

Our Americas
new world News, analysis, opinion and a weekly review of the New World in the headlines. From Canada to Argentina.

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