Roger Johnson, North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture and current president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, has been in Cuba this week with a trade delegation negotiating purchase agreements of North Dakota products. He was in Havana on Tuesday when Fidel Castro announced he would not seek another term as president. Elections will be held Sunday and speculation is that Castro's brother, Raul, who has been acting-president since Castro underwent stomach surgery in 2006, will be elected to replace him.
"If that is the case it's likely things will proceed pretty much as they have over the past couple of years," Johnson says. "My personal view is that I don't think this is going to have a great deal of impact as far as the trade delegations that have been down here over the past several years."
Johnson, who is on his seventh trip to Cuba, says the relationship building that has occurred over the last number of years is important and increases the likelihood that we will have an ongoing economic relationship with Cuba.
"It has always been our experience that when Alimport enters into a deal with any of our sellers, that the terms of the deal have always been adhered to really without any question," Johnson says. "They have always negotiated very much in good faith, their word has always been good and I have developed a very good relationship with Pedro Alvarez the head of Alimport, the entity that buys 90% of food products that come on the island."
When asked about any advice he would give to President Bush or Congress concerning the situation in Cuba, Johnson said he wouldn't change the advice that he's been giving since his first trip to Cuba.
"I can never intellectually understand the argument that we should have an embargo with Cuba because that will change their behavior," Johnson says. "Nor does the argument that we've got an embargo on to get rid of Castro was the answer. He's now outlived nine U.S. Presidents so that rational seems to have disappeared a long, long time ago."
Johnson points out that the U.S. has a much different attitude and a much more engaging relationship with other Communist countries such as China, with travel, trade and negotiations.
"In spite of all that and the argument for that sort of behavior, when it comes to Cuba this government seems to have the opposite policy with a completely different rational that is 180 degrees different than the rational used most everywhere else," Johnson says. "I've long not been in favor of the embargo. I doubt that it is something that is going to quickly go away, but I certainly think we ought to have a policy of much more engagement; that we ought to be talking and loosening up travel restrictions."
Johnson says if a million Americans traveled to and from Cuba each year, things would change pretty dramatically. He says it is not wise for the U.S. to just continue to follow the same policy and expect a different result.