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Minnesotans in Cuba: Obstacles preventing trade

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith speaks during an interview at a Havana, Cuba, hotel, Thursday, June 22, 2017. Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters1 / 3
Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson stand in front of a Havana, Cuba, hotel on Thursday, June 22, 2017. Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters2 / 3
A Cuban shows Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tima Smith and Minnesota Farrm Bureau President Kevin Paap a picture of a combine on Wednesday, June 21, 2017, during a trade mission to Cuba. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota governor's office.3 / 3

ST. PAUL — A Minnesota trade delegation in Cuba says the country is hungry for American farm products, but obstacles must be overcome first.

"Some things need to happen," Jim Zenk of the Minnesota Dry Bean Research and Promotional Council said from a sunny and humid Havana during a Thursday, June 22, conference call with reporters.

President Harold Wolle Jr. of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association and Zenk said that among the needs is a way for Cubans to get financial credit to buy American goods. Credit is not available.

"Some of these barriers have to come down before we can make progress," Zenk said.

While the trade mission lead by Lt. Gov. Tina Smith discussed some of the specific barriers like credit with Cubans, the biggest question mark was the impact of President Donald Trump's comments of a week ago that he would roll back some open-trade rules enacted by then-President Barack Obama.

"Some of the statements the president made on Friday certainly created uncertainty," Smith said.

Dean Beverly Durgan of the University of Minnesota Extension service said Cubans appear frustrated by Trump's comments, but "they are very interested in trade with the U.S., both ways."

Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson, making his second Cuba visit, said Trump set back ag trading.

"The present administration in Washington has caused a significant level of uncertainty that is disruptive to the Cuban people," he said. "We are kind of starting over again."

While federal law allows American farmers to sell to Cuba, there is red tape in both counties that makes the process difficult. And, Smith said, it may be three months before the Trump administration releases specifics about how Cuban trade policy will change.

Still, Smith said, this was a good week to be in Cuba. The delegation emphasized its desire to increase trade.

The Minnesota delegation was the first in Cuba since Trump announced his changes.

Delegation members said Cubans want American products.

Wolle, who farms near Madelia, said Minnesota could sell Cuba corn ("they don't grow much corn"), corn-based ethanol fuel and soybean meal, among other commodities. Poultry also is a potential export.

Zenk, an Olivia-area farmer, said they also need dry beans, especially black beans. "We grow a lot of them in our area."

Besides farm products, Cubans need improved farm technology, those on the trade mission said.

"They farm with draft animals yet," Zenk said. "We have seen a few tractors here, Russian-made tractors."

Frederickson said the group watched a pair of oxen plow a half acre at a fruit and flower cooperative.

Besides food, Zenk said, Cuban farmers need things like fertilizer and herbicides, products that

Cubans want to improve their farming technology, delegation members said. They have not been available since the fall of the Soviet Union, Zenk said.

On Wednesday, President Kevin Paap of Minnesota Farm Bureau showed farmers pictures of his modern combine and discussed cutting-edge agriculture techniques. He drew a crowd of farmers who long for such improvements.

No specific deals came out of the trade mission, but Smith and Frederiksen said they hope it leads to continued trade discussion and trips back and forth between the countries.

Cuba imports 80 percent of its food and agriculture products, Smith said, giving Minnesota an opening.

But there is plenty of competition, she said. As the Minnesota delegation prepared to visit the agriculture ministry, a Chinese delegation was leaving.

Minnesota has exported agricultural products to Cuba for years, under an exemption to American trade ban that allows selling food and medical devices to the communist country. But trade has dwindled to near nothing since 2010.

The state hit a high point in ag exports after then-Gov. Jesse Ventura visited Cuba in 2002, with nearly $52 million worth of Minnesota products sold to Cuba in 2008.

The Minnesota delegation met with officials of the Cuban ministries of foreign affairs and agriculture and visited the cooperative and local food markets. It did not get far away from Havana.

Also on the trade mission were state Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, Evan Berquist from Cozen O'Connor law firm and Erica Boyum of CHS Prairie Lakes, an agriculture cooperative

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.