HAVANA — President Fidel Castro gave a bearhug welcome Thursday to thousands of American businesspeople at a U.S.-Cuban trade show, even as the groundbreaking event set off a cross-fire between the Cuban leader and Bush administration officials.
Castro welcomed representatives of nearly 300 U.S. companies--the largest gathering of Americans in Cuba since the 1959 revolution--at a food exhibition in suburban Havana that is intended to strengthen trade ties. The 76-year-old leader sampled goods and declared Americans "will always be welcome" in the country.
Yet Castro also responded sharply to comments of the senior U.S. diplomat in Cuba that, despite the show, trade between the two nations is not likely to amount to much.
James Cason, head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, told reporters Wednesday that Cuba had a "Jurassic Park economy," and he raised questions about whether the island nation could pay for the food it wants to import.
Castro insisted Thursday that his government would make good on its obligations, and said he was willing to bet Cason $100,000 to prove it.
The exchange was the latest controversy to dog the show. The U.S. businesses want to expand the $140 million in food sales that are now permitted under a congressionally approved exception to the 40-year-old embargo on trade and travel with Cuba. But Bush administration officials believe such commerce would only prop up the impoverished Communist regime.
In recent weeks, administration officials have referred to Cuba as a terrorist state and contended that Castro uses American visitors as "props" for his regime. The administration wants to keep the support of staunchly anti-Castro Cuban American voters in Florida, who were important to President Bush in the 2000 election and could be crucial in the November reelection bid of his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush.
At the show's opening, Castro stood between Cuban and American flags and among such luminaries as Allen Andreas, chairman of agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland Co., and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. Pedro Alvarez, head of the Cuban agency that oversees food imports, drew thunderous applause by extending Cuban sympathies on the Sept. 11 "criminal and terrorist attacks."
Alvarez said Cuba is importing about 16% of its food from the U.S. but would like to increase that share to 60% within the next several years.
U.S. food company executives said they were mystified by the Bush administration's attitude toward the gathering. They pointed out that the U.S. government had granted the license for the event, though officials probably could have found a reason not to do so if they had wished. They also said the Commerce Department and Treasury Department have been highly cooperative.
Yet at the senior level, U.S. officials have made it clear that they do not approve of attempts to broaden trade with the regime, they said. "It is somewhat puzzling to the exhibitors," said Peter W. Nathan, the longtime trade show organizer who put together the event.
One U.S. businessman, who asked to remain unidentified, said the contradiction suggests that the government may not really oppose the trade opening, even though "there's all this rhetoric about it at a public level." Cuban officials said they planned to sign hundreds of purchase contracts with the U.S. firms for a total of about $50 million worth of food. About 90% of the exhibitors will receive contracts, the Cubans have told show officials.
Three members of Congress and representatives of seven state governments were present to promote local exports. The exhibitors included such concerns as Cargill, Tyson Foods Inc., Perdue Farms, and Hormel Foods, as well as Archer Daniels Midland, the principal sponsor.
Larry White and Les Paulson, who are in the food processing business in North Dakota, said they were impressed by Cuba's undeveloped business potential.
They said they were surprised to see that waterfront properties in Havana could be allowed to crumble and that the picturesque harbor could be almost bereft of boats. "This whole country is like a car up on blocks," White said.
But Paulson added that the day Cuba opens up to development--with American help--"this place will bloom like a rose."