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Colorado eyes trade with Cuba

Colorado eyes trade with Cuba
By Jessica Fender
The Denver Post
Updated: 07/27/2009 06:11:58 AM MDT

Colorado officials are seeking to establish trade between the state's
farmers and Cuba, a practice forbidden by the previous governor but in
step with a growing group of U.S. states far from the political pressure
of anti-Castro groups.

Advocates say the Cuban demand for American foodstuffs is growing too
rapidly — from $260 million annually to $711 million in six years — for
Colorado farmers to ignore a potential customer just 90 miles from the
Florida coast.

Critics, including Republican former Gov. Bill Owens, call Cuban
ex- "a cold- blooded murderer" whose regime is
using business ties with states to pressure the U.S. government for the
two things it most wants: credit and tourists.

Tim Larsen, the state Department's senior international
marketing specialist, is leading Colorado's exploration of the Cuban
market with the support of many farm and business interests across the
state.

"We're complying with U.S. regulations in a growth market," Larsen said.
"The mood is changing about Cuba. Do we position ourselves to take
advantage of it now, or do we wait?"

Colorado companies already sell some products to Cuba — about $1 million
worth in 2008 — all of them exempt from the long-standing U.S. trade
.

Now, a request for proposals Colorado recently posted seeks to up that
figure considerably, asking for help with the complicated process of
traveling to Cuba, setting up meetings and deciding the quantities and
packaging of goods, among other tasks.

The proposed contract is broken into three phases and can be severed at
any point.

It's not known by anyone how much the endeavor could cost — or earn —
the state. But politically, there is no clear cost here for trading with
Castro and his brother, Cuban President .

While anti-Castro Cuban expatriates have considerable clout in places
such as Florida, Colorado has just 3,701 Cubans, according to the most
recent census.

Since 2000, when Congress exempted agricultural and medical products
from the embargo, at least 21 states have led trade missions to the
island nation with varying degrees of success.

Only two of those states — New York and California — have sizable
populations of Cuban expats. And both of their trade efforts have been
exploratory rather than productive, according to State International
Development Organizations, a not-for-profit group that advises state
governments on trade.

Florida — home to 68 percent of the nation's Cuban population, according
to the Pew Hispanic Center — has made no effort to trade with Cuba.

States without significant Cuban populations have tried harder.
Nebraska's Great Northern Bean market was tanking in 2006 before an
agreement with Cuba led to more than $20 million in sales by 2008,
according to Stan Garbacz, that state's agricultural trade representative.

"There's nothing steady about anything down there. It's a constant
activity, but I've built up a relationship," he said. "It's really been
wonderful."

Nebraska has 859 Cuban residents.

Pro-trade business groups say they realize the Cuban government — which
prefers trade envoys that include elected officials — isn't buying
American goods purely out of need or altruism.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out they're going to take
pictures and say, 'Here's the senator from New Mexico. Here's the
Nebraskan governor. Why won't the federal government talk to us?' " said
Jim Reis, president of the World Trade Center Denver. "But this is a
great opportunity to help Colorado sell a little more of what we produce
and broaden the market for (Cubans)."

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama opened up increased travel to
Cuba for family members of those on the island. He has also proposed
other ways to ease the long-standing embargo.

And legislation pending in Congress would further open Cuba to American
tourists and ease sales practices for U.S. businesses.

"The state is preparing for the likely adoption of new federal
legislation that would allow companies to more actively promote trade
exports," said Evan Dreyer, spokesman for Gov. Bill Ritter. "We do what
the Colorado marketplace demands. We serve them … within the framework
established by the federal government."

The Ritter administration's position is a reversal of the posture held
by his predecessor, Owens.

"I too felt the pressure from some in the ag community to do this, but I
wouldn't allow state tax dollars to subsidize this kind of mission,"
Owens said. "(The Castros are) directly responsible for personally
murdering thousands of people. This will help that regime stay in power."

Mauricio Claver-Carone of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, an anti-Castro
group, says Cuba is using the agriculture sales in an effort to
influence U.S. policy toward the nation by buying from states and
seeking their help lobbying Congress.

Claver-Carone said U.S. companies can do business only with a
quasi-governmental agency run by the Castro family.

"We will be for (opening trade with Cuba) the day when U.S. farmers and
the people in Colorado can do business with the Cuban people — when
Cubans can open up a business or a fruit stand," Claver-Carone said.
"This doesn't help the Cuban people."

Jessica Fender: 303-954-1244 or jfender@denverpost.com

Colorado eyes trade with Cuba – The Denver Post (27 July 2009)
http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_12920052

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