WILLMAR — When Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Dave Frederickson visited Cuba he had to put his past beliefs about the country behind him.
“I’m old enough to remember the revolution. Your dukes are up a little bit,” Frederickson said this week at the Willmar Rotary Club meeting.
But when he arrived in Cuba he was met by smiles.
“You get there and you’re welcomed with open arms by the people,” Frederickson said.
With the loosening of rules against trading and traveling to Cuba and the reopening of the American Embassy, more and more groups are making the trip to Cuba, to explore possible business opportunities. President Barack Obama will make a trip to Cuba this month, the first sitting U.S. President to visit in over 90 years.
“It is not the biggest market in the world,” Frederickson said, but there are possibilities for American agriculture, business and tourism.
Ending the embargo won’t suddenly make the U.S. Cuba’s main trade partner, but it would open some previously shut doors.
“Anytime you can move product, that is good for the company. We did lose, we lost opportunities,” Frederickson said.
Minnesota is on the forefront of building relations with Cuba, Frederickson said. In this year’s state budget there is $100,000 set aside for Cuban trade and government, business and ag leaders have made several trips to the island in the past few years.
“It is always good to get to the front of the line. Minnesota was one of the first states to engage with Cuba. We continue to do that,” Frederickson said.
Cuba’s largest exports are sugar, cigars and rum, Frederickson said, none of which come into the U.S. in any large quantity. U.S. poultry, soybeans, corn and dairy are large exports into Cuba.
“We would stand to benefit with enhanced trade with Cuba. All important to this section of the country,” Frederickson said.
Because of the Cuban government’s far reaching influence in Cuba’s private and public sector there is still a lot of pushback from Congress about removing the embargo that was put in place over 50 years ago, Frederickson said.
“It is one of those darned if you do, darned if you don’t,” Frederickson said.
However, Frederickson thinks enough time has passed.
“It is time we put difference aside and move on,” Frederickson said.
There is movement nationally regarding thawing relations with Cuba, Frederickson said. In a recent opinion poll 73 percent of respondents said they approved of better relations with Cuba. However, the embargo might not be completely lifted until 2017, Frederickson said.
U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn.,has worked to get the embargo removed, having introduced HR 3238, which effectively would end the embargo.
“I appreciate his efforts,” Frederickson said.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has introduced a similar measure in the Senate.
“It is a Minnesota thing. We shake their hands, look them in the eye and invite them to coffee,” Frederickson said.
There are problems in Cuba, according to Frederickson. While in the country in December Frederickson saw people waiting in line for their daily food rations, saw farmers using oxen and carts and noticed the government’s involvement in most everything.
“It is hard to fathom. The government owns everything,” Frederickson said.