Last Day in Cuba, New Thoughts

By Neil Melancon, Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation

One quick story from yesterday that I forgot about at the cigar factory. There are several types of Cuban cigars and one style is called “Romeo y Juliet (Romeo and Juliet).” They’re not aged long and they’re considered kind of “light” cigars.  The name, of course, comes from Shakespeare, but for a very specific reason. 

In Cuban cigar factories, the top floor is reserved for the entertainment of the workers, a tradition that has carried on since the mid-19th century. They would often read newspapers or sports headlines, read a chapter or two of a book, play radio dramas (think soap operas) and music. Anything to take the workers minds of the often monotonous tasks. You see where this is going, one of the more popular activities was hearing Shakespeare. They decided the small, light cigars reminded them of the star-crossed lovers from one of the most popular plays of all time. Guess you haven’t heard it ’til you’ve listened to the Bard in the original Spanish.

One song we heard over and over here is the classic Cuban ballad, “Guantamera,” a song even more prevalent than statues of Jose’ Marti, the original author of the lyrics and the father of Cuban independence from Spain. It’s perhaps fitting we heard it over and over because that is what the question of U.S.-Cuba relations is like, spinning around in circles, especially for farmers who stand to gain or lose if the embargo is dropped.

I got some time to talk with the those involved in sugarcane production and answer the questions I posed in my first blog post about what happens if and when Cuba is opened back up. Everyone of them stared a palpable sense of relief after visiting the island nation. With almost every single other commodity or business salivating at the prospect of opening Cuba up, sugarcane has been the odd man out, as the threat of swamping Louisiana’s sugar industry in an already saturated market is a dire threat. 

However, each of them is of the opinion that 1) Cuba won’t be opening up anytime soon and 2) even if it does, it’s not in any position to threaten the market. Herman Waguespack, a sugarcane agronomist on the trip with his wife Lisa, said he can’t see how sugar will ever be produced en masse in Cuba again, without a complete revamping of their infrastructure. With no fertilizer or farm chemicals, the land that lies fallow now won’t be reclaimed. Further, he said, the Cuban government is having enough of a hard time feeding its own people, something we saw clearly in the markets and the countryside.

Gary Gravois, on the tour with his wife, Colette, said the trip alleviated his concerns for one big reason: foreign investment isn’t allowed in the country. Without that, U.S. companies have no reason to try to  bring anything to Cuba, as well as Cuba having no bargaining chip to drop the embargo. Gary’s cousin Greg Gravois, here with his daughter, Megan, said the infrastructure issue alone made Cuba’s sugar industry negligible. When you have workers waiting for hours int he countryside to find a ride to work, you can’t expand production.

John Gay and his wife Karen had a unique perspective. Karen lived in Germany during the Cold War and it both parents involved in U.S. government, saw the worst of a paranoid government that was constantly trying to control its citizens and world events at the same time. Rodney Simoneaux, here with his wife, Michelle, saw the lack of liquidity as a huge detriment to increased sugar production. Rodney has a background in farm credit and doesn’t see how Cuba is going to get the cash to fix what it has and increase domestic production without first getting outside money in. That means foreign investment, which is prohibited by law, currently.

At the end of the trip here, the sugarcane producers from Louisiana were as relaxed and happy as everyone else. They got to sample the wonderful culture, food and hospitality Cuba has to offer. It’s potential as a tourist destination is only going to grow, but what divide will that create in the command economy, especially as hard-working Cubans clamor for American goods? All producers, both as farmers and consumers, stand to benefit with working with Cuba and doing as much as they can to help them transition into a prosperous nation—both countries will gain.  

I think about Maria Ramos and I worry her spirit would be troubled. She hated Castro so much, but he’s gone and his brother is stepping down. The Cuban people are proud of their country and yet love Americans as far as I can tell.  For this tour group and the potential Cuba has, that love seems to be returned. 

Here, for our July trip, the song lyrics to “Guantanamera” couldn’t be any more appropriate:

Cultivo una rosa blanca
En julio como en enero
Para el amigo sincero
Que me da su mano franca.

I grow a white rose
In July, just as in January
For the honest friend
Who gives me his open hand.

I am eager to return for another trip, even if it’s a vacation, so I can tell Cuba, it’s culture, mountain views, food and most of all, its people, te quiero quiero once more.