Editor's Note: Our own Avery Davidson is currently in Cuba on an agricultural trade mission with Louisiana Congressman Ralph Abraham and others. Here are his thoughts on his first day in the country.
The rhythmic sounds of drums and flourishes from a trumpet echo down cobblestone streets lined with balconies built in that old, Spanish style. The men greet you with a heartfelt hello. The ladies smile as they pass you by. It sounds like the heart of the French Quarter in New Orleans, but this is the cultural center of Cuba known as Old Havana.
The name is a bit of a misnomer, because Old Havana is one of the few places in the city where buildings have new, modern signage and fresh coats of paint. Old Havana is also home to a new, entrepreneurial spirit; one which drives the continued revitalization of the area. The private and public businesses here must pay into the Old Havana district. That money is then reinvested into restoration and new businesses, like a café or a microbrewery, which then generates more money for the district. The guide leading U.S. Congressmen Ralph Abraham of Louisiana and Rick Crawford of Arkansas, Louisiana State Senator Francis Thompson and a group of people involved in the rice industry says this system is self sustaining and other Cuban cities are duplicating this model.
Outside of Old Havana, the Cuban capital looks old, run down and in need of much more than a fresh coat of paint. Residential buildings have broken windows, rusted gates, iron bars surrounding entrances and show the result of decades of economic stagnation. People hang their clothes out of their windows to dry in the humid sea breeze. It’s 80 degrees Fahrenheit outside, but there are no signs of central air conditioning. Cisterns sit on the tops of many apartment buildings, most showing the same cracks as one sees in the mortar and stone used to build crumbling walls.
Despite this juxtaposition of rebirth and decline, the spirit and will of the Cuban people remains strong. In a meeting with Congressmen Abraham and Crawford, Maria de la Luz B’Hamel Ramirez, the Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment Director for North America, makes it clear that Cubans are proud of their history. There are still issues standing in the way of normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States, but she says now is the time to begin taking down the barriers that prevent trade between two neighbors. Standing only 5’ 3”, wearing glasses and hair styled in a manner that can best be described as grandmotherly, Ramirez is a powerful player in economic activities in Cuba and could be the ally Crawford and Abraham need to make inroads for Southern Agriculture.
“Agriculture will lead the end of this embargo,” says Abraham. Crawford is quick to point out that it takes 36 days for rice to travel from Vietnam, Cuba’s main source for rice, but that if the rice were to originate from the Port of New Orleans, it would be in Havana in 36 hours. Ramirez lists the commodities Cuba would want from the U.S: soybeans, corn, poultry and, of course, rice. All are produced in Louisiana and Arkansas.
Crawford has a bill before the House that would extend financing to Cuba so that the country could use credit to pay for goods, rather than have cash up front. With only 25 cosponsors, the bill will not likely go up for a vote soon. Crawford hopes to change that by bringing more members of Congress to Cuba, to meet Ramirez, look her in those warm, caring eyes and see that like the French Quarter and Old Havana, we have more in common than we think.