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Cuban trade embargo? Not for Vermont cows.

Amid debate over trade sanctions, a little-known exception allows farm exports, like apples and milk.

By Sara B. MillerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 21, 2004



They share a rural identity - one is a spread of rolling farms, the other of tropical plantations. They boast of their collective resourcefulness - one endures the harsh winters of the Northeast Kingdom, the other the unreliability of ancient cars and empty grocers.

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Now their relationship has become formal: Vermont expects to send its first shipment of dairy cattle to Cuba at the beginning of next year. The move is part of a $7 million deal that would bring cows, powered milk, and apples - among the makings of the Vermont brand - to the Caribbean nation. Maple syrup and cheddar cheese could be next.

A pioneer in everything from civil unions to Canadian drug imports, Vermont is making its move on the heels of a number of states that have broken into a market long blocked by US foreign policy. More than 40 years after the embargo was formed and sustained through 10 administrations, the United States has become the No. 1 supplier of food to Cuba. Even as the Bush administration continues to tighten the money flow into the nation, US soybeans, peas, apples, and gum, stubbornly make their way through.

"The amount of commerce has gotten pretty substantial," says William LeoGrande, dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington. "Cuba and the US are natural trading partners, and if the embargo were lifted, the amount of trade between [them] would be enormous."

What's more, the support for such trade comes from an unlikely source: Republicans, who are putting pragmatics above politics. "Farm-state Republicans have led the charge on this," says Dr. LeoGrande.

By 2000, with pressure from political leaders and their constituents, President Clinton signed a bill authorizing the US to sell food to Cuba. There are stipulations: Trade is one-way and cash only.

President Fidel Castro Ruz initially balked, calling the policy discriminatory - until hurricane Michelle ravished the nation in 2001.

The first US ship arrived in the port of Havana that December. Since then some 35 states have sent off any number of products. There is some disagreement over the dollar amounts, but John Kavulich II, president of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York, puts Cuba's purchases at $139 million by the end of 2002. In 2003, that number had jumped to $257 million. As of September of this year, they had purchased $277 million, says Mr. Kavulich.

Vermont's agriculture secretary, Steve Kerr, will travel to Cuba in early November to finalize selling 50 Holstein and 50 Jersey heifers. He also hopes to entice Cubans into buying the state's McIntosh apples and powdered milk.

Mr. Kerr says that many Vermonters had no idea that trade was permitted. "It's not on anybody's radar screen," he says. Aside from a few angry e-mails he says he's received from Cuban-Americans in south Florida, the deal has presented virtually no controversy in Vermont.

"I think it's wonderful, " says Pam Sweeney, a resident of Montpelier who formed the Vermont Cuba Coalition with friends after a trip there in 1989. Its purpose was educational, to get the Vermont public to see Cuba and Cubans as real and progressive, just like their Vermont counterparts. "Farmers are suffering in Vermont, and Cubans need food," she says.

Still, calls to end sanctions rankle some Cuban-Americans. And Frank Calzón, director of the Center for a Free Cuba in Washington, warns that sales are acceptable only as long as the US never sells to Cuba on credit. He worries that Mr. Castro would not pay back: "The American taxpayer would end up picking up the tab."

For many, however, the new Vermont deal is just another sign of a symbiotic relationship - from migration, to a shared currency, to a love for jazz rhythm and baseball - that cannot be artificially stunted. "Cuba is closer to the US than almost any other Latin American country," says LeoGrande. "It's amazing that despite all these years of government-to-government hostility, there is just such a close relationship people to people."

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