A small but powerful group of U.S. legislators hate Fidel Castro more than they value the agricultural foundation on which this country was built, say several sources. Unfortunately, this is not likely to change as long as the Cuban dictator is alive.

The situation prompted Jim Wiesemeyer, vice president for policy and trade issues with Sparks Companies, to joke that U.S. sanctions on Cuba would disappear “when Fidel Castro is in his casket, the CIA pricks his corpse with a pin and he doesn't jump.” Wiesemeyer made the comment during the recent USA Rice Outlook Conference.

Other speakers at the conference hoped that the Cuban market would open under less drastic circumstances.

“A few decades ago Cuba was our number one export market for rice,” said Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. “It could once again play a valuable role in strengthening our rice industry.”

Opening the market for the limited sale of food and drugs, as the Bush administration did earlier this year, helped, according to Lincoln. But the government required third-party financing, which created an obstacle for Cuba.

Cuba is already a customer for U.S. rice, but there is even greater potential for increasing sales, according to Richard Bell, president and CEO of Riceland Foods. He said that Cuba could eventually become the third-largest rice export market for U.S. growers, primarily in the rough rice market.

But for now, the biggest roadblock appears to be the U.S. Congress, where there are pockets of strong opposition to Castro.

“They have a real distaste for the leadership of Cuba,” Lincoln said. “We have to persuade them that we don't exactly love Fidel Castro or his policies, either. But we know that the best way of insuring more democracy in Cuba and a greater sense of economic security for Cuba is to open its markets and show its people what is available from a good former trading partner.”


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com.