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Selling peas in Cuba at an historic moment

Agriculture.com Staff 02/20/2008 @ 1:59pm

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson was in Cuba this week on a trade mission when he learned, along with the rest of the world, that Fidel Castro will step down as president of the island nation that the aging revolutionary has ruled for nearly 50 years.

Johnson said he sensed no dramatic change in Cuba's leadership from his visits with government employees of Alimport, the agency that buys food from the United States and other nations.

"My personal view that I don't think this is going to have a great deal of impact," Johnson said Wednesday in a telephone press conference from Havana, Cuba.

Johnson and other agricultural leaders from his state are on their seventh trade mission. Since Congress changed the law that authorizes a U.S. trade embargo against Cuba to allow for U.S. exports of food and medicine to that nation, North Dakota has sold at least $30 million in farm commodities that can be traced directly to the state, Johnson said. Some other commodities that might be commingled with shipments from other states have also been sold out of North Dakota.

The state's number one export to Cuba is peas, he said, which isn't surprising since North Dakota is the nation's leading producer of peas. The delegation is also trying to sell distillers grains from ethanol plants, dry beans and pulses, and corn, wheat and soybeans.

Johnson said he's not optimistic about wheat sales, given the high prices of wheat these days and the fact that Cubans can buy hard red winter wheat more cheaply from states that are closer.

"The market's just too high for them to be able to afford it," he said. "Cuba's not a wealthy country." When considering food imports, "they look at it from the standpoint of how can they buy the most protein for the least amount of money, and the most carbohydrate for the least amount of money."

Johnson said he has no inside knowledge about who will succeed Fidel Castro as president. Many observers expect that to be Fidel's brother, Raul, who has been running the government since Fidel had stomach surgery in 2006.

If that happens, Johnson said he believes Raul may be a little more pragmatic in running Cuba's economy than Fidel.

"My sense is he is more concerned about letting economic signals help make decisions on the island," Johnson said.

Johnson, who is also president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) said his long-standing opposition to the embargo against Cuba has not changed.

The U.S. allows trade and travel to such communist nations as Vietnam and China but not Cuba. Johnson said Castro has outlived many U.S. presidents and that the embargo has been ineffective. If American tourism resumed in Cuba, that nation would have more foreign exchange to buy food from the United States, he said, and contact with more visitors might encourage political change.

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson was in Cuba this week on a trade mission when he learned, along with the rest of the world, that Fidel Castro will step down as president of the island nation that the aging revolutionary has ruled for nearly 50 years.

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