When Minnesota Soybean Growers Association Director Lawrence Sukalski heard the news that President Obama on Wednesday ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba and the opening of an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century, memories flooded the Martin County farmer’s mind.
In 2002, after Hurricane Michelle devastated areas of Cuba, Congress loosened trade restrictions to the country. The U.S. traded with Cuba on a cash basis, and Sukalski was one of three farmers who traveled to Cuba to watch the first shipload of U.S. grain and soybean oil reach those shores for the first time in more than 40 years.
“As you recall, Hurricane Michelle was very devastating,” he said. “It took a lot of the food people were going to eat immediately. A lot of chickens and pigs were lost.
Sukalski said that when Congress loosened the restrictions, U.S. grain was able to get to Cuba in one day. This was an impressive feat because Cuba was importing grain from China, which usually took about three weeks, and the quality wasn’t always up to par.
“It was a very special feeling to be there, and it made all the farmers in the Midwest feel good about it,” he said. “This shipload was from Cargill, and Cargill got a little bit of grain from everyone around so it was sort of a ceremonial thing.”
Sukalski toured parts of the hurricane stricken island, as well as areas with chicken and pork operations that weren’t destroyed. He said he watched that first shipload come up to a part of Cuba that wasn’t damaged, and he still remembers seeing the white beaches and the ship on approach.
The thing that stood out most to him, though, was when he and the delegation met with Fidel Castro.
“I know a lot of people don’t like him, but you have to understand his people liked him,” Sukalski said. “From the stories they told us, when Castro took power, he made sure people had food to eat, something they didn’t have under [Cuban dictator Fulgencio] Batista. Castro knew more about American agriculture than 99 percent of our population. It was pretty impressive.”
As for the announcement that President Obama has ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations, Sukalski wasn’t shy about sharing his feelings.
“They should be our customers,” he said. “A traditional Cuban meal is pork, white rice and black beans. We love the idea of them eating our pork. We deserve to be their customers.”