Meeting with Castro yields Vermont-Cuba agriculture deal

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(Host) Vermont’s agriculture secretary, Steve Kerr, says his recent trade mission to Cuba wasn’t about politics, it was about business. And he says after a surprise five-hour meeting with the country’s president in Havana, a deal for cows and powdered milk was clinched.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Steve Kerr’s trip to Cuba was sandwiched between two hurricanes. Charley delayed his flight on the way down, and he left Havana with Hurricane Ivan on his trail. Kerr says his visit was also a whirlwind, with long days and nights spent in trade talks and farm visits, and one surprise, marathon meeting with President Fidel Castro.

(Kerr) “The meeting was on Wednesday night and into Thursday morning. We started about 9 o’clock at night, and got done at two in the morning.”

(Dillon) When Castro talks, his audience mainly listens. The 78-year old revolutionary is famously verbose. The discussion that night touched on health care, economics, and education. Kerr says that for his part, he stayed away from politics.

(Kerr) “I didn’t go down for political purposes. Obviously I’m not the State Department and the state of Vermont doesn’t have a foreign policy of its own, so I was scrupulously careful to stay away from those kinds of issue, because my job was to go down and try to sell some products for our farmers.”

(Dillon) Kerr left Cuba with a deal worth about $7 million. The country is trying to rebuild its dairy herds, so officials agreed to buy 50 Holsteins and 50 Jersey cows from Vermont farmers. The government import agency also wants to buy powdered milk from the Agri-Mark and St. Albans dairy co-ops.

Agriculture is exempt from the U.S. trade embargo. And Kerr says other states have also made trade deals with Cuba. But he says Vermont has a good opportunity to expand sales.

(Kerr) “Cuba is an economy that needs what we have. Obviously we’re a society that likes to sell. We’re not doing this for charitable purposes. They pay cash. They’ve paid $861 million over the last two years for agricultural products from the United States, and they paid all in cash.”

(Dillon) Kerr’s trip to Cuba follows a visit earlier this year by Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie. Kerr says Dubie made a strong impression on Cuban leaders. Vermont also has another connection to Castro. Senator Patrick Leahy met the Cuban leader in 1999, and Leahy gave Kerr a letter of introduction that helped open doors in Havanna.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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