Allan Henderson sold North Carolina apples to hungry Cubans for three years during a brief easing of trade restrictions, and he hopes for a chance to do business in Cuba again one day.
“We have freedoms they just dream about, and some of those freedoms are just food to eat,” Henderson, whose Henderson Products sells fruit and vegetables in Hendersonville, said Thursday. “To heck with the politics. I would be ready to go back and trade with them tomorrow if it would be legal.”
Henderson hasn’t been to Havana to visit Fidel and Raul Castro since 2006, when the State Department canceled his export license. Other North Carolinians who have traveled to the communist island nation this year share his belief that the restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States, announced Wednesday, will bring welcome economic and cultural opportunities for both nations.
“Cuba is a hungry marketplace, in the best sense of the word,” said Brad Wilson, CEO of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of North Carolina, who traveled to Cuba in January and November. “The Cuban people have an appetite for moving forward. They understand that includes a more active capitalistic and democratic society.”
President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro agreed this week to open embassies for the first time since 1961. Obama said Congress should lift a trade embargo that has punished the Cuban people without bringing democratic change to the Caribbean nation.
More Americans will be allowed to travel to Cuba. Limits on money transfers will be raised, and Americans will be able to bring home goods worth $400 (including rum and cigars up to $100). While Americans now must carry cash to Cuba – euros, not dollars – they eventually will be able to make purchases there with credit and debit cards. Additional exports to Cuba will be allowed, including some building materials, agricultural equipment and telecommunications gear.
Congressional action will be necessary before all trade, travel and tourism restrictions are lifted. Some Republican leaders have already indicated they are not ready to lift the embargo instituted in 1960, shortly after Fidel Castro seized U.S. businesses in Cuba.
But some North Carolina business leaders say it’s time to end the embargo.
“It may have been for all the right reasons 50 years ago, but this isn’t 50 years ago anymore,” said Kel Landis III, former CEO of RBC Centura Bank. “I hope every political leader will take a very objective, open look at this.”
Obama’s first steps will make a difference, he said.
“The ability to use credit cards there is going to remove a great barrier to commerce,” Landis said. “Lifting restrictions and allowing more commerce does give that low-wealth nation some hope for a brighter future.”
Peter Thornton, assistant director of international marketing for the N.C. Department of Agriculture, said that sales of agricultural products to Cuba could jump significantly if obstacles that have been in place for years are lifted.
“In time, it is going to grow, and it is going to grow fast,” Thornton said. “But we’re probably talking a few years before we see dramatic increases.”
Although agricultural products already can be sold to Cuba, it has been “a pain in the tush” for several reasons, Thornton said.
“Financing is a big issue,” Thornton said. “One, the Cuban government doesn’t have a whole lot of money. Two, you can’t provide financing to Cuba,” which means that companies can’t offer credit.
Cuba currently ranks as the state’s 29th-largest trading partner for agriculture. North Carolina meat producers have recorded $8.4 million in sales to Cuba so far this year, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures through October.
Mark Borroso of Pittsboro, son of a Cuban man who met his North Carolina-born wife in Raleigh, has visited his Cuban cousins twice over the past decade. He praised Obama for “a great first step” that he hopes will lead to full normalization of relations after years of enmity between the two nations.
“I’m not a huge fan of Castro,” said Borroso, a documentary filmmaker and sound engineer. “He’s caused a lot of suffering to his people, and so has the embargo. It’s two wrong-headed governments going at it, and the ones who suffer are the people.”
‘Frozen in time’
Visitors to Havana return with similar impressions of a city time-stamped by 1950s-vintage American cars, with buildings and other infrastructure that have deteriorated since the 1960 embargo.
“The city is just frozen in time and has not been maintained,” said Larry Robbins, a securities lawyer with Wyrick Robbins Yates & Ponton, who joined Landis and Wilson on a weeklong Cuba trip in November, sponsored by the N.C. Museum of Art. “Many of the homes are just crumbling, and some have collapsed.”
Robbins sees prospects, if government leaders in both countries allow, for North Carolina businesses.
“If you assume that telecommunications and Internet opportunities will be opened up and the banking system will be opened up, I think there will be opportunities,” Robbins said. “We have a fairly large group of core agribusiness companies in North Carolina – Bayer, BASF, Syngenta. Those companies will have an opportunity to go in and help the Cubans with the shortage of food they have.”
The flow of tourism will have to be turned on slowly, Robbins and Landis said, because Cuba doesn’t have the hotels, utility and transportation networks and other improvements needed to support great numbers of travelers.
Henderson first traveled to Cuba with a North Carolina trade delegation in 2002. He eventually won contracts and export licenses to sell apples there for three years.
“At the time they had been buying their apples from Europe for $1.38 apiece, and we got them down to where it was costing them about 82 cents per apple,” Henderson said. “I would go to their parks and see children eating our apples that had not always been available to them before. That’s the reason to open trade, for the people.”
Reporter David Ranii contributed.