Bound for Cuba

The road to Havana begins in Marshall County.

After months of hard work, intensive negotiations and an ever-changing political landscape, an Iowa delegation will travel to Cuba Aug. 21-26, hoping to secure trade deals between Iowa farmers, as well as business owners with the Cuban government.

And at the forefront are three Marshall County men who believe a trade agreement with Cuba will benefit Iowans and the Cuban people economically, politically and socially.

Former Special Ambassador Carlos Portes, state Rep. Mark Smith, both of Marshalltown, and state Sen. Steve Sodders of State Center, have been crafting plans to travel to the island nation of 11 million people ever since the Obama administration announced the United States would restore diplomatic relations and expand economic ties with Cuba.

Cuban officials, Portes said, “have been very, very receptive” to the Iowa delegation and are “very impressed with how integrated the group is.”

The group is comprised of a handful of state legislators and a varied group of Iowans with far-ranging business interests.

Among those traveling to Havana, representatives from agri-business companies like Darling Ingredients Inc., Iowa Crop Improvement Association, the Iowa Corn Growers Association, CropRite of Marshalltown, Edler Family Farms of State Center and Calderwood Farms of Traer.

There are also interested parties from the nearby Meskwaki Tribe, Mobile Track Solutions of Elkader, Hatch Development Group of Des Moines, Hawkeye Hotels in Cedar Rapids and MedCara Pharmaceuticals in Conrad.

At the recent opening ceremony for the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C., Portes worked with his Cuban counterparts going over the delegation list.

“We went down the list and I would say they were extremely interested in knowing we were ready to conduct business,” Portes said.

Sodders said when he was contacting prospective Iowans to make the roughly 1,800-mile trek to Cuba, it was made clear that this was not going to be a vacation, rather this was about business – a first of its kind for Iowa.

Portes agreed and said the Cubans are serious about acquiring Iowa goods and products.

“They are ready to cut deals, they are ready to ink these deals, which puts a tremendous amount of weight on this trade mission,” he said. “This will be the first official trade mission to visit after the U.S. embassy opens (on Aug. 14).”

Aside from trade negotiations, Portes insists, the Cubans also are interested in Iowa companies possibly investing in property and business in Cuba proper, such as manufacturing and computer companies or farming operations.

The interest and the desire is there, Portes said adding, “I would say that if I would have to rate the meeting, an A- if not an A … an A+ if we get the deals done.”

Prior to talking with the Cubans and before Obama’s announcement this past December, Portes said the Cubans probably would not have considered Iowa as a possible trade partner.

“But they were very impressed … They never thought we would put so much work into something like this; that we thought of every angle,” he said, adding that the Cubans liked Sodders’ intensity and reputation as a “pit bull, a steamroller.”

The Cubans also remarked about the work the two Marshall County legislators did to get a resolution passed in the Iowa Senate … that there was a “very powerful connection between myself, Sodders and Smith.”

For Sodders, this initial trip could set the stage for many future trade missions between Cuba and Iowa.

“I think the thing that comes from this, and this is my gut feeling, that this will be the first mission of many missions of taking businesses down to Cuba,” he said.

Early on, lining up participants proved a challenge, in part because of the political climate, Sodders conceded.

“The initial push back really had to do more with national politics and the Republican presidential candidates. Unfortunately, Iowa got caught up in that, even though I had several Republicans who said ‘we love the idea,'” he said.

But over time, and following the passage of the Iowa Senate resolution, interest in the trade mission has gained momentum.

“I have been really getting positive feedback about our mission and our delegation; everybody is wishing us well,” Sodders said, adding that others have already been in contact with him about future Iowa delegations traveling to Havana.

And the timing of the trip on Aug. 21 hasn’t hurt either, since Cuba was removed the U.S. terrorist list and the American embassy will reopen a week prior to the Iowans’ arrival.

While Sodders, Smith and Portes understand the concerns over Cuba’s human rights issues, they are fervent in the belief that an trade mission between Iowa and Cuba is true forward progress.

“We do business with China, Vietnam … and we have established full diplomatic relations with those countries. We cannot have these double standards with Cuba,” Portes said.

In an earlier interview, Smith said those concerns are valid with many other countries including the former Soviet Union and China and yet the United States conducts business between those entities.

“It’s still a great opportunity (for trade), and meanwhile we can still keep our distance on political ideologies that we do not support,” he said.

Sodders said the bottom line remains that what’s good for Iowa is also good for Cuba.

“We are now poised, in part, by the embassy openings and, in part, with the lifting of restrictions … Iowa will be first in line to help Cuba. The trip will promote goodwill and positive outcomes.”

“Don’t think we’re doing this to benefit the Cuban government; the ultimate beneficiaries are the Cuban people,” Portes said. “Part of the greatness of America is that we can afford to take these steps … it’s a benefit to those whose lives we are trying to improve.”