WASHINGTON - Nearly a decade after then-Gov. Jesse Ventura met with Fidel Castro in Cuba, a new wave of Minnesota politicians is leading efforts to end travel and trade restrictions with the communist island nation.
Much like Ventura's 2002 Havana trade mission, the political muscle is being provided by Midwestern farmers and agricultural interests in search of new markets for exports.
"It's a very promising market," said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the sponsor of a bill that would cut through the red tape farmers face in trying to sell food to the nation of 11 million people.
Similar legislation was introduced last week by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, another Minnesota Democrat. "American farmers can greatly benefit from access to new markets in Cuba at a time when our economy needs it most," she said.
The legislation is aimed mostly at U.S. farm exports to Cuba, which have tripled since they were first allowed in 2001, hitting a record $710 million in 2008.
Some restrictions remain, however, that make the sales cumbersome. The legislation is aimed mostly at lifting those restrictions. But its quantum leap would be ending the ban on travel to Cuba, which was a popular casino playground for American gangsters, celebrities and tourists right up until the final hours of the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Though likely to be the most controversial part of the legislative initiative, farm groups say that ending the ban would foster tourism, helping Cubans generate the cash they need to buy more U.S. exports.
But even if the new bills expanded trade and travel, there is one door that would remain firmly shut: the decades-old U.S. trade embargo that prohibits imports from Cuba, including the island's rum and famed Cohiba cigars.
Nor would it end the credit ban that forces the Cuban government to pay cash up front for food sales.
The bills would, however, end clunky payment restrictions unpopular with farmers like Ralph Kaehler, a St. Charles, Minn., cattleman who has to transact his sales to Cuba through a bank in France.
Minnesota farmers, who sold $52 million worth of goods to Cuba in 2008, say they could easily sell 50 percent more without the rules that force them to use banks outside the United States.
"It's a no-brainer. It would reduce cost and make it quicker," said Kaehler, whose two fair-haired sons grabbed international headlines in 2002 showing Castro a bull named "Minnesota Red."
Though the legislation enjoys bipartisan support in farm country, it faces an uncertain future in Congress, where normalization efforts with Cuba have met with mixed receptions over the years, particularly at times of increased tension with the Castro regime.
"The history is littered with legislation having not become law," said John Kavulich, senior policy adviser for the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a group of major U.S. companies exploring business opportunities in Cuba.
Minnesota-based companies that have been members of that council at different periods since 1994 include 3M Co., Medtronic and Carlson Cos., which has long expressed interest in being able to build hotels and book travel to Cuba's famed Varadero Beach.
Americans traveling to Cuba must obtain a special license, typically granted for business purposes or to visit immediate relatives. American tourists do travel there, but must go through another country -- typically Mexico or Canada -- and must lie to U.S. Customs officials on their return or risk civil penalties and criminal prosecution. Cuba encourages the travel by not stamping U.S. passports.
Earlier attempts have failed
Minnesota-based Cargill Inc., a global food marketer that has done business with Cuba for years, has jumped on the trade bandwagon, as have others, but to little avail.
A 2007 attempt to further ease restrictions on food sales to Cuba was defeated in the House 245 to 182, with 66 Democrats opposing the measure.
The Obama administration, trying to ease the 50-year-old rift with a nation still described by the State Department as a "totalitarian police state," last year softened the travel ban a bit, allowing Cuban Americans to visit relatives and send them money.
But anti-Castro sentiment is strong in some quarters, and Cuban dissident groups say little has changed in the two years since the ailing Fidel Castro relinquished power to his brother Raul. The recent death of political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo after an 83-day hunger strike hasn't helped soften tensions. Nor has the recent arrest of an American technology contractor, whom the Cubans accused of spying.
Despite the bad feelings, U.S. food sales to Cuba have continued to grow, helping build political support for normalization. Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson has been to Cuba three times, joining a virtual caravan of farm-state governors from Illinois to Idaho.
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.