By Neil Melancon, Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation
Before my mother got remarried, she was working for the city as an EMT nurse and often had irregular hours. Fortunately, her parents lived relatively closely, in a large home at the corner of Fontainebleau and Nashville Avenues. Most mornings, I would be dropped off before school there where a bus would pick me up and I would come back there in the afternoons until my mother got off work, often after the sunset. It would be my second home, especially when mom had to work nights.
My grandparents had a worker to help with the housework, Maria Ramos. She was a Cuban immigrant, an exile from the Cuban Revolution. Outside of Florida, New Orleans was the second-most populous area for Cuban people in the U.S. The neighborhood where Maria lived off Tonti St. was a little Havana for the number of exiles and their descendants. In fact, Maria was both a mother and grandmother at the time that I met her.
She became a loving caretaker for me and my grandparents trusted her completely with my care. That trust was almost completely upheld, but she snuck me sips of Coca-Cola that I was not allowed to have. We called it our "secret-secret." She taught me how the plantains in my grandparent's trees were a staple part of Cuban cuisine.
She referred to me as "mi niño," "my child," and she was a natural extension of my family. Her son, Freddie, would sometimes come by and take me to play Ms. Pac-Man at a nearby convenience store. It was certainly a charmed life I led and long after she had retired and we moved away from New Orleans, I would receive letters from her on my birthday, always signed "te quiero, quiero. Maria."
As unconditional as her love was, if there was a dark side to her, it was always when she spoke about Cuba under Castro. She spoke darkly about what happened during the revolution and what she would do to him if she ever saw him. My young mind was exposed to some grisly details about what she saw there. Suffice it to say, it is extremely easy for me to imagine why the Cuban exiles in the U.S. have traditionally had such a hardline approach to Cuban policy.
Times change. The family that bought my grandparent's home tore down the plantain trees and planted them with crepe myrtles, now two stories tall, as far as I can see from Google Earth. Trade with Cuba hit $248 million dollars in ag exports alone last year and, despite a snag with President Trump this year, all signs are pointing to a more open trade situation in the coming years.
It's a tune Louisiana farmers have heard before and even if the island nation is fully opened to foreign investment, many challenges await. A recent story suggested more than half of Cuba's farmland lies fallow, waiting better economic conditions. The same story said Cuba had increased its rice production by 20 percent last year, in an effort to make up for some of the $2 billion ag trade deficit the island nation has each year. Rice farmers have hoped for re-opening their industry to reclaim what was once the number one destination for Louisiana rice.
As I set out tomorrow for Cuba, it is my intention to explore two questions: what consequences will reopening the country mean to U.S. producers and what conditions are different from when the embargo went into effect all those years ago.
Also, I apparently have to bring back some rum for Avery Davidson...