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One Cuban-American businessman voices concern about exporting too much

State could be one of top 10 states to benefit from Cuba exports

For many Americans who learned to “drop and cover” during the Cuban Missile Crisis of the early 1960s, President Clinton’s move to sign into law new trade regulations in 2000 was like pouring salt on an open wound. And the resentment of many Cuban Americans’ toward Cuba’s president Fidel Castro for his treatment to Cubans over the years hasn’t helped the 40-year long embargo to dissolve any faster.

“I’m very concerned about the human rights issues down there,” said Ron Werby, vice chairman of the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport Authority. Werby, whose father is Cuban, as is most of his family, is an advocate for the airport and he wants the airport to do business with Cuba if and when it comes available. But, Werby said, he doesn’t want that business to be “at the expense of the poor Cuban people.”

“I’m ambivalent in my feelings about Cuba because Castro needs to clean his act up and until he does, I don’t think we need to be doing anything more than what we’re doing right now,” Werby said.

Regardless of Werby’s feelings, however, the ties between the U.S. and Cuba are slowly changing. The new trade regulations signed by Clinton in 2000 allowing the Cuban government to buy food and agricultural products using cash or financing from a third country, was seen as the beginning of a mending process between the U.S. and Cuba by many. Two years after the regulations were signed, sealed and delivered, and on the 40th anniversary of the 13-day-long missile crisis, the first officially sanctioned U.S. agricultural show in Cuba was held. The fair, which took place two weeks ago, offered Mississippi companies, transportation industry and state officials as well as others from around the nation the opportunity to mix and mingle and develop trade ties with the Cuban people.

“Given Mississippi’s important agricultural sectors, coupled with its geographic proximity to Cuba, gives the state a potential advantage in developing relationships that will continue to grow if and when the full embargo is finally lifted,” said Bill Scaggs, district director of the Mississippi Export Assistance Center.

John Clark, sales manager of Kitchens Brothers Manufacturing Co. of Hazelhurst, one of the companies present for the four-day long agricultural trade fair, was pleased with the way the fair went.

“I’m not sure how much their economy can give to us,” Clark admitted. “Let’s face it, there are only about 14 million people in all of Cuba and the amount of business that we get out of it is in direct relationship with what the Cuban government can come up with to pay for it. But I could see them being the equivalent of the Los Angeles market with the same buying strength. I don’t know of anyone who would say that the LA market would be a terrible market to have 10% of.”

The idea of opening up trade to Cuba is nothing new for Mississippi. The Port of Pascagoula alone exported more than 45,000 tons of frozen poultry to the nation last December. Port director Mark McAndrews said trade with Cuba is a win-win situation. He cited a study conducted by the Department of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M University released earlier this year by the Cuba Policy Foundation, which seeks freer trade with Cuba. Mississippi is said to be one of the top 10 states that would benefit from freer trade with Cuba. The state could see $51 million a year, according to the study.

“We think the Latin American and Caribbean trade areas are where our growth areas are,” McAndrews said.

The Port of Pascagoula already regularly exports to the Dominican Republic, the northern coast of South America and Central America.

Barbara Travis, executive director of the Mississippi World Trade Center Inc., agreed. But Travis said Cuba could be much more than a market for exported goods.

“I also get many comments from our members and potential members and academics about the potential for tourism in that area,” Travis said. “Some of our members are interested not necessarily from a business perspective but also from the tourism side that they’d want to be first in line to take a trip there.”

But Werby again warned of the dangers of becoming too close with Cuba. He recalled meeting a 55-year-old woman in a cigar bar in Cuba during his last trip for the agricultural fair. The woman told him of her 32-year employment with Cubana Airlines. Now retired, the woman makes $11 in retirement each month, according to Werby.

“You have doctors down there who make $40 a month and have to work at hotels at night,” he said. “Poor young girls who can’t make a living are working as prostitutes. The Cuban people are just wonderful people. They’re so warm. It’s such a sad thing to see them suffering like they are.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at ekirkland@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1042.

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