8/23/2006

Navajo Nation talk business without Fidel

Aug 23, 2006 — By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - The highest-level U.S. delegation to visit Cuba since Fidel Castro handed over power left the island on Wednesday with a historic deal on trade between the communist country and a Navajo agribusiness but no message for Washington.

New Mexico Rep. Tom Udall, a Democrat, said his delegation had met neither the ailing Cuban leader nor acting President Raul Castro, Fidel Castro's younger brother.

"If they had wanted to talk I would have been willing to do it," said Udall, when asked if he carried any messages back to the Bush administration.

"I spent my time on cultural and trade issues," added Udall, who was accompanied by New Mexico state's Secretary of Agriculture Miley Gonzalez and a group of businessmen.

Udall's group will be going home with a contract for the Navajo Nation to sell farm products grown by its Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, which cultivates some 68,000 acres in New Mexico.

"We signed a letter of intent between the Navajo Nation and Cuba to sell beans, corn, wheat and other products," Gonzalez said.

"I think this is historic in terms of a Native American tribe and Cuba signing an agreement," Udall added, saying there was a great deal of empathy between tribal and Cuban representatives.

Tsosie Lewis, general manager of Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, said his business would now have to study the various U.S. regulations on doing business with Cuba.

"We sell millions of tons of beans to Mexico, but this will be much more complicated because of the red tape," Lewis said.

The trade embargo has exceptions for agricultural goods paid for in cash and Cuba has purchased more than $1 billion in U.S. food since 2002, mainly corn, wheat, rice, chicken and soy products.

Fidel Castro often meets with visiting U.S. lawmakers and their agriculture delegations trying to sell food and has always shown an interest in Native Americans, but did not meet with this group.

Castro temporarily handed over the reins of power to his brother on July 31 after undergoing emergency surgery to stop intestinal bleeding attributed by the Cuban authorities to his workaholic pace.

The Bush administration, which has labeled the hand-over of power from one Castro brother to another as an unacceptable "dynastic succession," has in recent years tightened enforcement of a more than four-decade-old trade embargo on Cuba.

It has also stepped up pressure for a transition to multi-party democracy since Fidel Castro temporarily stepped aside.

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