Linda Zaunbrecher of Gueydan, La., is ready to go back to Cuba, but she said she hopes next time she goes as a tourist. Zaunbrecher was the only Louisiana representative on a recent five-day goodwill organized by the USA Rice Federation.
More rice sales to Cuba could benefit the industry, according to LSU AgCenter economist Mike Salassi, who said Cuba was the largest buyer of American rice when the U.S. trade embargo was imposed in the 1960s.
As for the April trip, Zaunbrecher, who is active with the Rice Federation and also represents the LSU AgCenter on the Council for Agricultural Research, Extension and Teaching, said luck more or less placed her there.
Originally, rice farmer Jackie Loewer of Branch, La., was scheduled to go, but when he couldn't make it, he recommended Zaunbrecher instead.
“I got in on it because it was planting time, and I was free to go,” said Zaunbrecher, whose husband Wayne is a rice farmer.
Cuba currently buys a limited amount of American rice from Riceland Foods, Zaunbrecher said, and agreements were signed during the trip that could lead to more rice sales. But mostly the meetings were a way for the Americans to meet officials with the Cuban trade ministry called ALIMPORT, she said.
“We were a goodwill group,” Zaunbrecher explained.
Salassi, the LSU AgCenter economist, points out there's no way of knowing if the demand would be the same as it was before the trade embargo of the 1960s, but he said Cuba “would be a good market for us because it's close.”
USA Rice Chairman Gary Sebree, a rice grower from Arkansas, said the trip strengthened the relationship with buyers and consumers of rice in Cuba.
“Cuba is estimated to import 550,000 tons of rice this year; however, only a fifth of that comes from the United States due to U.S.-imposed export restrictions,” Sebree said.
The USA Rice delegation was among an estimated 400 farmers and food traders in Havana to make trade contacts.
The group met with ALIMPORT, Cuba's food import agency, and pledges were signed to continue joint promotion efforts and to work to create a more open trade environment.
One of the highlights was hearing a speech by Cuban leader Fidel Castro, according to Zaunbrecher, who said she was only 20 feet from the 77-year-old dictator whose remarks were translated by an interpreter.
“He looked frail,” she said. But he gave a speech filled with statistics and details, she said, and he didn't appear to be reading from any notes.
“I was pretty much in awe, just being there for that to happen,” Zaunbrecher said.
Castro excused himself from a steak and lobster dinner that followed his speech, Zaunbrecher said. But before leaving he gave assurances that American companies would be treated fairly.
“He would point his finger and say, ‘You don't have to worry. You're going to get your money,’” Zaunbrecher said.
While full two-way trade between the United States and Cuba is prohibited, cash sales of U.S. agricultural goods are allowed.
Cuba has bought much of its rice from Vietnam, but the quality is inferior to American rice, Zaunbrecher said.
She said the USA Rice group toured a rice mill and farm. Some of the rice fields appeared to be stressed, she said, but the explanation was given that fertilizer wasn't obtained when it was needed.
“Wayne (her husband) would not have liked the size of the panicles,” Zaunbrecher said of the rice plants she saw.
She said the old architecture in parts of Havana reminded her of the French Quarter in New Orleans, but many of the buildings need maintenance. “What I could do with a pressure washer there,” she said.
She said American vehicles from the 1950s fill the streets, and photos of old movie stars who frequented Cuba before Castro took power lined their hotel walls.
“It was like being in another time,” she said. “Some of us dated ourselves by being able to recognize the year of some of the cars.”
Zaunbrecher recalled that Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959 when she was a student at Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). Several of her friends were dating Cuban students who returned to their homeland, she said. “Younger people have studied this in history, but I lived it.”
While the USA Rice delegation was in Cuba, the U.S. House of Representatives Cuba Working Group also was in Cuba, Zaunbrecher said. Many of the congressmen on the panel want to lift the general ban on travel to the island nation by Americans.
Zaunbrecher and her USA Rice colleagues were allowed to travel to Cuba by the U.S. government because they were on a trade-related visit. By law, American tourists are barred from legally going to Cuba.
Bruce Schultz writes for the LSU AgCenter.