Guest column: Emerging market has great promise

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 21, 2002

It’s a rare opportunity to be a part of history in the making, but that’s what it felt like in Havana, Cuba, as I accompanied Gov. Ventura to the U.S. Food and Agribusiness Exhibition from Sept. 25-29. This exhibition showcased American agricultural products to prospective Cuban buyers with the goal of creating trade connections between our two countries.

Setting aside the international politics, there are concrete benefits to seeking greater trade with Cuba. Research shows Minnesota would rank in the top 10 among states most benefited by full agricultural trade between Cuba and the United States. If all trade restrictions were lifted, our farmers could expect to enjoy nearly $46 million in new exports. The total economic benefit for the state would be nearly $92 million, including 900 new jobs. This is a great opportunity, and that’s why it makes sense for us to act quickly to get our foot in the door of a new, developing market.

Many states had a presence at the show, but Gov. Ventura’s high profile helped us get a bit more attention and access from the Cuban officials. The best example of this was that the governor and I had the rare opportunity to meet privately with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

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Of course, the governor also brought some welcome attention to Minnesota’s exhibitors especially the Kaehler family from St. Charles. Ralph Kaehler, along with his wife, Mena, and his sons Cliff and Seth, brought a variety of livestock to the show, including beef and dairy cattle, sheep and even bison. Visitors flocked around the Minnesota farm family and their livestock, and the family even had a chance to visit with Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The Kaehlers and their animals were the biggest attraction of the show, and they did a fine job serving as ambassadors for Minnesota’s farm families.

Minnesota’s delegation generated a lot of positive publicity. However, I am pleased to report his trip also managed to produce some long-lasting benefits for Minnesota farmers. We made encouraging progress in developing trade contacts.

The Cuban agricultural minister expressed an interest in working with Minnesota cattle breeders to purchase specially bred livestock that can withstand his country’s hot, humid climate. In addition, several of the 12 Minnesota agribusinesses at the show have long-range export deals in the works as a result of the trip to Havana.

The unique nature of Cuba-U.S. relations made this trip the most controversial of all the trade activities we have undertaken. However, it should be pointed out that Minnesota set no radical precedent by attempting to form a trade relationship with Cuba. After all, Congress lifted the ban on trade in food and medicine back in 2000, and many other states had a major presence in Havana. As was the case with our trips to China and Mexico, our goal was simply to get our foot in the door of an emerging market that has great promise for Minnesota farmers. I am convinced that we accomplished this.

Gene Hugoson is the Minnesota State Agricultural Commissioner