Rutland Herald, Vermont
Pressure growing to open Cuba
By Bruce Edwards STAFF WRITER and Peter Hirschfeld Vermont Press Bureau - Published: April 6, 2009
MONTPELIER — In an attempt to grow Vermont's export market and liberate an oppressed population, Vermont House lawmakers may urge the federal government to lift a decades-old trade embargo with Cuba.
Vermont's relationship with the island nation, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, has flourished in recent years as Vermont officials engage in diplomatic and commercial exchanges with the Communist country. The state's commissioner of education, Armando Vilaseca, a Cuban-American who has visited the Caribbean island eight times in the past decade, told legislators last week that this tiny state could help reshape the debate over whether to ease Cold War-era tensions with the Castro regime.
"A joint resolution from even a small state would provide a different perspective, and I think that would be helpful," Vilaseca said. Vilaseca was born in Cuba and immigrated to the United States when he was 8 years old. He returns often to visit friends and family, and said the plight of the Cuban people is exacerbated by their inability to sell domestic products to the U.S.
Vilaseca said his views run counter to most Cuban-Americans, the majority of whom worry that open trade would legitimize Castro's totalitarian grip. Vilaseca said as new ideas, new products and new money flow into the country, the Cuban population will find the wherewithal to challenge its government.
"It's in our best interest to open up relations with Cuba, not only for trade for our own economy, but because it's a positive force that eventually will lead to the democratization of the island, which is ultimately what we all want," Vilaseca said. Vermont has reached out to Cuba over the past several years engaging in trade, education, cultural and humanitarian projects.
Four years ago the state sold 74 heifers to Cuba to help that country rebuild its dairy herd.
Vermont also took the lead in the sale of several thousand metric tons of powdered milk to the island of 11 million people. The state also had a pending sale of 4,000 bushels of apples, but the sale never went through when the U.S. government failed to issue visas in a timely fashion for Cuban inspectors to visit Vermont. Supporters of the 48-year-old embargo argue that given its human rights record, the totalitarian regime in Cuba should not be rewarded with trade and tourists. But Roger Allbee, Vermont's agriculture secretary, said the United States trades with other countries with questionable human rights records.
"We're all saying the embargo doesn't make any sense," Allbee said. "We're trading with China and it doesn't make any sense not to be trading with Cuba as well."
Without the embargo, Allbee said more trade with Cuba is possible, especially given its close proximity to the United States. In addition to dairy and food products, Allbee said Vermont could be in a position to export certain agricultural technologies including turning cow manure into methane gas to generate electricity. But Allbee also said trade is a two-way street.
"We might learn something from them in terms of medical science," he said. "They're very good on drugs and they have one of the best education systems in the world in terms of literacy rates as I understand it."
The first shipment of Vermont Holsteins and Jersey heifers was brokered by Florida rancher John Parke Wright IV, a frequent visitor to Cuba and a vocal supporter for lifting the embargo. In an e-mail to the House Commerce Committee, Wright noted the work of the Brattleboro-based Holstein Association USA in Cuba. "For Vermont's point of view and behalf of the Holstein Association, we need two-way trade and travel with Cuba," Wright said. "I recommend that Vermont take leadership in this new trade opportunity." The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has called for ending the embargo – a position endorsed by the state organization.
"We have trading relationships with countries all over the world that have real or perceived problems as far as America is concerned," said Christopher Barbieri, interim president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. "Business is business and, frankly, business relationships tend to influence other aspects of the quality of life in countries." Barbieri also said it would be beneficial to Vermont to be out in front on the issue instead of waiting for political change to take place in Cuba.
In addition to trade, Burlington College has established a semester abroad program with the University of Havana. Last summer with the help of Sen. Patrick Leahy, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie and Wright, a group of Vermont and New Hampshire youth baseball players played a series of games outside of Havana. In the past, two nonprofit groups, Caribbean Medical Transport and Vermont Institute on the Caribbean, have done humanitarian work in Cuba.
Dubie has testified before the commerce committee as it considers the advisory resolution and said the measure is worth lawmakers' effort. Vermont's input, Dubie said, may embolden a new presidential administration that has already moved to relax travel to the island by Cuban-Americans. Obama has also indicated a willingness to further improve relations with the communist regime by relaxing travel for all U.S. citizens.
"World peace starts first in the family, next in the country and then next with your neighbors," Dubie said. "Cuba's a neighbor. And this is an opportunity." Rep. Warren Kitzmiller, a Montpelier Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Commerce, said he's unsure yet whether the resolution will make it out of his committee for a full floor vote.
"I'm not sure my committee is unanimously anxious to deal with this," Kitzmiller said. "I'm certain I could pass it out on a split vote, but I'm not at all sure I want to do that." Still, he said he thinks it's appropriate for Vermont to insinuate itself into the national debate. "I'm of the opinion that the Cuba embargo has long since used up whatever original purpose or value it may have had. Now I think it's just punitive," Kitzmiller said. "Cuba could desperately use better relations with the United States, and I think Vermont stands to gain from that as well."
For Vilaseca, the issue hits literally close to home. The sooner the U.S. engages fully with Cuba, he told lawmakers, the sooner the Cuban people will realize economic prosperity and social justice.
"Everyone I know there is struggling in Cuba, and part of that struggle is not having a market for their products," Vilaseca said. "Everyone I speak to there, everyone asks 'Why are you doing this to us? Why are you hurting regular people?'"
JG: This excellent article about Vermont's growing trade with the Caribbean island reinforces the true fact that the failed Cuba embargo does not hurt the Cuban government, it hurts the Cuban people. It is time to put the cowboy policies of George W. Bush where they belong: in the garbage receptacle. Trade is very beneficial to the peoples of our two countries. Friendship YES, confrontation NO!