May 31, 2008 2:00 AM (3 hrs ago) By JEFF KASS, AP
HAVANA (Map, News) -
The Havana Hilton became Fidel Castro's temporary headquarters more than
40 years ago when he marched victoriously into this capital city. Today,
the retro lobby is abuzz with tourists lounging in oversize rattan
chairs. Along the wall is a photo of Castro's guerrillas dressed in
fatigues and cradling guns.
The hotel, now called the Havana Libre, was the site of yet another
incongruous scene this year: a wine-tasting hosted by Basalt,
Colo.-based Miller Farms Exports.
About 40 Cuban officials sipped merlot, cabernet and white wines while
munching on Wisconsin cheese, recalled Miller Farms President Jack Miller.
Miller Farms, which ships a variety of goods to Cuba, was hoping to
promote wine and cheese in a country where ham-and-cheese sandwiches and
rum are common bar fare.
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Miller is ahead of the curve when it comes to pitching products to Cuba.
Some businesses and government officials in Colorado are intrigued by
the possibility of boosting exports to Cuba and may try to enlist Gov.
Bill Ritter to join a trade delegation to the country. The pitch could
occur after the November elections, given the political sensitivity of
such a trip.
"In the '60s, I wanted to starve Castro out," said Jim Reis, president
of WorldTradeCenter Denver, who expects to be involved in the trade
effort. "Now I said, 'Let's kill his policies with kindness.'"
It's premature to discuss a trade mission, said Pam Reichert,
international trade director in the Colorado Office of Economic
Development and International Trade, a state agency. But she said that
this summer her office will begin researching Colorado's trade potential
"Cuba's always out there (as an option)," she added, "because there are
other states that have gone there."
Tom Lipetzky, markets-division director for the Colorado Department of
Agriculture, said his office is "doing our homework" and does not have a
timeline for making any pitch to the governor. But he said there's a
sense that for Colorado, Cuba "is not a closed door."
"There are some products from Colorado that do line up with what Cuba is
importing," he said.
Despite Cuba's socialist government and militant face-off with America,
the two countries do conduct some business. In 2007, the U.S. sent $447
million worth of goods to Cuba, mostly agricultural, according to
figures from WorldTradeCenter Denver and WISER, the World Institute for
Strategic Economic Research. That's up from $347.7 million the year before.
Colorado exports to Cuba have officially been at zero from 2005 to 2007.
But items are sometimes tracked by their port of exit, so a Colorado
product shipped from Los Angeles may be credited to California.
The state that consistently funnels the most to Cuba is Louisiana - $173
million worth of goods last year, though the figure includes items from
other states that are shipped through its ports. Second was Texas, with
A key reason Colorado has little or no Cuban exports, Reis said, is that
elected officials have not undertaken a trade mission. The Cuban
government gives preference to businesses in states where the political
establishment supports trade.
Reis believes that if Colorado does strengthen its business ties to
Cuba, agricultural and maybe some medical exports from the state could
reach $5 million to $10 million in two to five years. That compares with
about $1.4 billion in state agricultural exports worldwide last year.
Miller Farms has been capturing some of the Cuban market, albeit not
with Colorado products, for roughly seven years. About five years ago,
it shipped instant ramen noodles from southern California. Each packet
sold for about 50 cents.
Last year the company had a Mississippi catfish fry at a Havana
restaurant, but sales never took off, in large part because Cubans were
starting their own fish farm, Miller said.
The Miller Farms transactions have been varied but not easy. Miller
notes that he cannot use American banks, and the Cubans have to pay
upfront for the goods, which eliminates options such as buying on credit.
For the California wine-tasting, dates kept changing because the bottles
were delayed at Cuban customs - a common occurrence, Miller said. And
while he hasn't sold any wine yet, he says the Cubans were impressed
with the quality. "They seemed to like the chardonnay."