Cuba’s ambassador to the United States is in Texas this week to meet with business owners who want to sell to Cuba. In February the state Department of Agriculture went on an official trade mission to the island, and another group of Texans is headed there for similar reasons later this year.
Texas businesses and their advocates have high hopes of snagging a piece of the market, but the state has actually been chasing Cuba for a long time.
In August of 1999, a group of Texans boarded a plane headed for Cuba.
“It was hot, hot, hot, and you had 10 men and one woman packed into this little prop plane,” says Steve Pringle, then-legislative director for the Texas Farm Bureau, who was on the flight.
The group was on a special mission to bust open Cuba’s import market.
“Let’s just say it was exciting,” Pringle says.
His colleague Gene Hall wasn’t having as much fun. A few seats over, he was having flashbacks to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“I believe to this day that’s the most frightened I’ve ever been,” he says. “There was the whole Communism thing, and the fear of an 8-year-old child. I never expected to ever be in Cuba.”
But here they were on their way to the island. They had gotten a license to visit, because it was still mostly off-limits to Americans. “It was certainly big news,” says Pringle. “It was so new they held a press conference upon our arrival.”
At the time, the U.S. didn’t allow any trade with Cuba. But U.S. rice farmers had been pushing hard to change that. Texas rice farmers and their allies at the farm bureau helped lead the effort.
“Cuba has always been of a lot of interest to Texas farmers and ranchers,” Hall says — especially to the state’s rice farmers. In the ‘50s, some growers sold almost their entire crop to Cuba, then came revolution and the embargo and many years of nothing at all, Hall says.
It wasn’t just the Texans who wanted to get their rice back into Cuba, he says. During the trip, an older woman came up to him at a market. “Tell them we need the rice,” the woman said through an interpreter. “Bring back the rice.” Hall was stunned that she remembered it. “We're working on it,” he told her.
For the next week, the group of Texans toured the island, meeting farmers and officials. Then, on their last night as they were saying goodbye to their new Cuban friends, a government official approached them. “Get back in the van,” he said. “We’re going to the palace.”
It was 11 at night, but the group jumped at the chance. Once they arrived, says Pringle, “They start bringing out mojitos. We’re having a little cocktail party prior to dinner and all of a sudden President Castro comes in.”
This is Fidel they’re talking about, not Raul. Hall was nervous at first.
“This was a guy I was terrified of when I was eight years old.” But, he says, Castro was charming and he knew a lot about Texas agriculture. After dinner they pulled out maps, talked about the finer points of rice farming and smoked cigars.
“We stayed there until 5 a.m.,” Hall says, “They gave us a box of Cohiba cigars, and he signed the box.”
In return, Pringle offered up a Texas Farm Bureau hat and lapel pin, which Castro affixed to his fatigues.
“It was quite a night. It felt like we were part of history being there,” Hall says. In fact, they were. The members of the delegation played a major role in getting a landmark law signed by President Clinton the very next year: the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000. For the first time in decades, it opened the door to modest trade with Cuba. Over the last 15 years, that law has led to more than $5 billion in American exports to Cuba, according to the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
Since Texas Governor Greg Abbott visited the island last year and the Obama administration further eased trade restrictions with Cuba last month, there’s a lot of excitement in Texas over the prospect of trade.
“People that had no idea trade was possible with Cuba,” says Cynthia Thomas, head of the Texas Cuba Trade Alliance. “They’re discovering it for the first time and they think they’re discovering something new and unique.”
In reality, Texas once exported more agricultural products than any other state except Louisiana. At peak that was close to $150 million worth of exports in a year, which isn’t all that much considering the state exports roughly $6 billion in agriculture products to other countries. But, for small producers, it was a big deal.
Then things seriously petered out – for years. But now, Thomas says, “it’s just overwhelming the new energy coming in.” She says she gets calls from people looking to get into everything from hotels and golf courses in Cuba to auto parts and office supplies.
In her view, Texas is especially well-positioned to do business with the island because of proximity, and the history of trade. Plus Texas has been vying for this market for a long time. That trip in 1999 wasn’t the only time Texans went to Cuba. Groups have gone a handful of time over the years, and they’ve brought Cuban officials here too.
She says it doesn’t hurt that Cubans watch a lot of Westerns. When she shows Cubans photos of Texans, she says, “They’re always baffled as to why they have on baseball caps instead of cowboy hats. I’ll make sure we only bring [a photo] of cowboy hats next time.”
As far as John Kavulich is concerned, though, all the cowboy hats in the state couldn’t seduce Cuba into buying American.
“Everyone needs to be sober when they’re looking at Cuba and not on proverbial crack," he says. Kavulich runs the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. He says as long as the United States isn’t allowed to extend credit to Cuba, the island will opt to buy from counties that will.
Kavulich offers an example.
“Cuba buys rice from Vietnam, and the Vietnamese give them two years to pay for it,” he says. “No U.S. company is going to give Cuba two years to pay for rice.”
Anyway, everyone seems to be in agreement that what Cuba really wants from the U.S. isn’t rice or poultry—it’s an end to the embargo. That’s what the Texas Farm Bureau is hoping for, too.
Whether or not that will happen soon, the bureau’s Gene Hall says Texas did its part.
“We were part of opening something up, and we were part of diplomacy in our own kind of way," he says.
They’re hopeful, but they have enough experience not to expect anything soon.
“I mean this is not a hundred-meter dash,” says Hall. “This is a marathon.”