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Minn. ag commissioner shares thoughts on Cuba

WILLMAR, Minn. -- When Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Dave Frederickson visited Cuba in December he had to put his past beliefs about the country behind him.

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Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson speaks Wedesday in Willmar about his recent trip to Cuba and the opportunities opening up now that relations between Cuba and the United States are starting to thaw. (SHELBY LINDRUD | TRIBUNE)

WILLMAR, Minn. - When Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Dave Frederickson visited Cuba in December he had to put his past beliefs about the country behind him.

  “I’m old enough to remember the revolution. You’re dukes are up a little bit,” Frederickson said Wednesday at the Willmar Rotary Club meeting.

But when he arrived in Cuba he was met by smiles.

“You get there and you’re welcomed with open arms by the people,” Frederickson said.

With the loosening of rules against trading and traveling to Cuba and the reopening of the American Embassy, more and more groups are making the trip to Cuba to explore possible business opportunities.

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President Barack Obama will make a trip to Cuba this month, the first sitting U.S. President to visit in over, 90 years.

“It is not the biggest market in the world,” Frederickson said, but there are possibilities for American agriculture, business and tourism.

Ending the embargo won’t suddenly make the U.S. Cuba’s main trade partner, but it would open some previously shut doors.

“Anytime you can move product, that is good for the company. We did lose, we lost opportunities,” Frederickson said.

Minnesota is on the forefront of building relations with Cuba, Frederickson said. In this year’s state budget there is $100,000 set aside for Cuban trade and government, business and ag leaders have made several trips to the island in the past few years.

“It is always good to get to the front of the line. Minnesota was one of the first states to engage with Cuba. We continue to do that,” Frederickson said.

Cuba’s largest exports are sugar, cigars and rum, Frederickson said, none of which come into the U.S. in any large quantity. U.S. poultry, soybeans, corn and dairy are large exports into Cuba.

“We would stand to benefit with enhanced trade with Cuba. All important to this section of the country,” Frederickson said.

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Because of the Cuban government’s far reaching influence in Cuba’s private and public sector there is still a lot of pushback from Congress about removing the embargo that was put in place over 50 years ago, Frederickson said.

“It is one of those darned if you do, darned if you don’t,” Frederickson said.

However, Frederickson thinks enough time has passed.

“It is time we put differences aside and move on,” Frederickson said.

There is movement nationally regarding thawing relations with Cuba, Frederickson said. In a recent opinion poll 73 percent of respondents said they approved of better relations with Cuba. However, the embargo might not be completely lifted until 2017, Frederickson said.

U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn.,has worked to get the embargo removed, having introduced HR 3238, which effectively end the embargo.

“I appreciate his efforts,” Frederickson said.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has introduced a similar measure in the Senate.

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“It is a Minnesota thing. We shake their hands, look them in the eye and invite them to coffee,” Frederickson said.

There are problems in Cuba, according to Frederickson. While in the country Frederickson saw people waiting in line for their daily food rations, saw farmers using oxen and carts and noticed the government’s involvement in most everything.

“It is hard to fathom. The government owns everything,” Frederickson said.

If the embargo is lifted and there is the possibility of an open exchange between the United States and Cuba, the island has a lot of work to do to be ready, Frederickson said.

“Things weren’t working really well. What we don’t understand is how poor that country is,” Frederickson said.

Frederickson said American farmers could learn somethings from their Cuban counterparts. Because education is paid by the government Frederickson said there is no shortage of Ph.Ds or interesting ideas.

Cuban agriculture isn’t the same as farming in the United States. Cuba doesn’t have the technology, mechanics or science of American farms. Cuban farmers have had to learn other ways of doing things.

“We could learn a lot from the organic farmers,” Frederickson said.

Despite the challenges, Frederickson believes there are opportunities for both sides.

“I think it is a great draw. They don’t want to go back to 1959. They want to control their future, their destiny,” Frederickson said.

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