Sunday, July 29, 2007

Cattlemen strive to untie business knots with Cuba

Cattlemen strive to untie business knots with Cuba
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 29, 2007

ADAMS RANCH, Fort Pierce — "Home, home on the range."

These days, a Florida cattleman singing those words might be reminiscing
about his own ranch in the Sunshine State.

He also may be recalling his recent horseback ramblings through the
plush pasturelands of Cuba.

Over the past several years, Florida ranchers - some from famous old
families - have toured ranches on the communist island and saddled up
with their cowboy-hatted counterparts. They marvel at the beauty of the
Cuban countryside.

They also have shipped heifers and breeding bulls to those Cuban
"friends" to help replenish the island's depleted cattle supply. They
have even hosted Cuban officials on their Florida ranches to select the

These ranchers are among a growing number of U.S. business owners who
want to trade with Cuba. Some of them favor an out-and-out end to the
45-year economic embargo and travel restrictions against the island so
they can form closer business ties with Cuban cowpokes. And they don't
see the Cuban government as a barrier.

"When we go to Cuba, we don't talk politics," says Jim Strickland, 52,
owner of the 6,000-acre Strickland Ranch in Manatee County, who has been
to the island at least eight times.

"We're just vaqueros and ganaderos - cowboys and cattle ranchers -
talking about our animals and our ranches with cattle people down
there," he says. "We speak the same language. Cattlemen historically
have always looked for new markets, and that's what we're doing."

Castro's brother a friend

Strickland is a fourth-generation Florida cattle rancher, grandson of
Andrew Jackson Strickland. One of his traveling partners to Cuba has
been Alto "Bud" Adams, 81, patriarch of the 16,000-acre Adams Ranch near
Fort Pierce and 40,000 more acres in the state. Adams is the son of the
late Alto Adams, a former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

Both were encouraged to visit Cuba by John Parke Wright IV, a descendant
of the Lykes family of Tampa, famed for its cattle, citrus and shipping
interests, starting in the 19th century.

All of the men come from old, conservative political traditions. They
are hardly the type who might be easily branded as commie sympathizers.

So what are they doing riding with cowhands from Cuban cattle-raising
regions Pinar del Rio and Camaguey? Why are they risking the wrath of
conservative Cuban exiles who believe the U.S. economic embargo against
Cuba should be gospel?

The Florida ranchers say they sympathize with anyone anywhere who has
lost family land. But that doesn't mean they are going to allow someone
from South Florida to tell them where they can and cannot ride horses.

"How is it that Cubans in Miami can tell us what to do if we're
Floridians, too?" Adams asks. "If it isn't illegal or immoral, I see no
reason I shouldn't go to Cuba. I can't please everyone."

For Adams, trips to Cuba have been legal since 2000. That was when
Congress passed an exception to the embargo against Cuba, the Trade
Sanctions Reform Act. It allows direct sale of food commodities to the
island and permits individuals in related businesses to travel there.

That change came in response to political pressure exerted by U.S.
farmers, many of them conservatives. It was also partly a result of a
Clinton administration agenda for more "people-to-people" and
humanitarian contacts with Cubans.

Wright, 57, of Naples has been to Cuba dozens of times since and has
visited dozens of cattle ranches, he says.

He proudly displays photographs taken with cattleman Ramon "Mongo"
Castro, 82, the older brother of Fidel Castro, 80, and Raul Castro, 76.

On Tuesday, it will be one year since Raul Castro became acting
president of Cuba, while longtime leader Fidel Castro convalesces from
abdominal surgeries. Not much has changed in Cuba in that year, and the
forays by the Florida cattlemen have continued.

"Ramon and I have become good friends over time," Wright says, a
statement that would make blood boil over whole blocks in Miami.

Despite opposition in the exile community, Wright has a history of
breaking down trade barriers with communist nations and hopes to do so
in Cuba.

In 1972, just as partial diplomatic relations were being resumed with
the People's Republic of China, Wright, then 22 years old, was
dispatched to Asia by his family firm, Lykes Bros., to try to reopen
shipping routes to China. The company, like other U.S. firms, had been
out of China since the 1948 communist takeover.

Wright, who had studied Mandarin Chinese at the University of Florida,
was ready. He went to work in the Hong Kong office of a British firm
that represented Lykes and by 1974 had been transferred to Beijing. He
began to forge relationships with Chinese officials, and by 1979 Lykes
ships were allowed in Chinese ports, the first U.S.-flagged vessels to
enter there in 30 years.

"The idea today in Cuba is the same as it was back then in China," he
says, "a resumption of trade facilitated by friendship and understanding."

Loophole allows visits

The Lykes family had amassed considerable holdings in Cuba before Fidel
Castro took power in 1959. They had shipped cattle to Cuba since the
19th century and eventually owned ranches and the largest
meat-processing plant on the island.

The revolutionary government confiscated the family holdings, several
million dollars' worth, as it did with other foreign firms.

Despite that, Wright says he feels no rancor toward the regime. In fact,
given his experience in China, he says he has long opposed the embargo
and other punitive measures against Cuba.

When the embargo exceptions became law in 2000, he started immediately
to resuscitate the old relationship, with hopes of shipping cattle to
the island out of Tampa.

He found other Florida cattlemen who were interested in the Cuban
market, like Adams and Strickland, whose families also raised cattle
that had been shipped to Cuba before the revolution.

"We were invited to go to Cuba, saddle up and make friends," Wright
says. "We are following the economic footsteps of our ancestors and
renewing the friendships between here and Cuba."

Along the way, they also have delivered some of the benefits of modern
cattle breeding that Cuban ranchers, largely cut off from technological
advances since 1960, had heard about but had not been able to access.

Breeding animals sent to Cuba have been developed with the help of DNA
engineering. They are made to be raised in the tropics: breeds with
short hair that don't lose great amounts of weight in the heat. Better
animal feeds and veterinary practices are also part of the new know-how.

Professors from the University of Florida Department of Animal Sciences
have traveled to Cuba to share what they know.

The Florida cattlemen want to sell more cattle to Cuba, and some would
even consider partnerships with Cuban cattlemen once the embargo is lifted.

Their visions go beyond Cuba. Adams says that outside the tropics, most
cattle breeders have "maxed out" on how many cattle they can graze in
their location. The tropics are the next big source of meat for the
world, and the breeds that he and other Florida ranchers have developed
are the vehicles, he says.

"The new breeds we are working will do well in places like Africa,
warmer parts of Latin America, etc.," Adams says.

Cuba, only 90 miles away, is a convenient place for Florida cattlemen to
start making that work. In 1960, the island had 6 million head of cattle
for 6 million people. Today it has 2 million head for about 12 million
people, Wright says.

"When Castro came in, he said, 'Before only the rich people ate beef.
Now everybody eats beef,' " Adams says. "They ate up all their cattle.
Everybody ate beef for a year, and nobody has eaten beef since."

Critics of the communist government say Cuban agricultural officials
compounded the problem by importing cattle that were wrong for the
climate and by mismanaging ranches.

"Cuba has food, but it's all low-protein," Adams says. "Cuba has
excellent pastureland and could be a big producer of high-protein beef
for its people. Apart from doing business, this is an opportunity to do
some good."

So far, Adams, Wright and others have provided about two dozen breeding
animals. Another 275 are in the pipeline, and hundreds more have been
shipped from other U.S. states. Wright also has helped the Cubans
purchase more than 400 American dairy cows to increase the island's milk

They are small steps toward renewing a business relationship with Cuba.

Adams recognizes that economic models would have to change in the Cuban
cattle industry for any American rancher to do serious business there.

"Government people don't know how to run a farm," he says. "One thing is
employment. We run this ranch with 10 people, and they would use 1,000."

None of the ranchers is trying to change the world overnight.

Adams says that for the moment they are satisfied to renew an old
relationship with Cuba and start to bridge the bitter political divide.

"It's like moving a herd of cattle from one place to another. You move a
herd real easy. You don't wanna spook 'em."

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