By PETTUS READ
As the chartered four-prop plane touched down on the runway of the Josemarti-LaHarana Airport in Havana, Cuba, I, along with thirty other semi-anxious people, wondered to ourselves what the five days would hold back during a very hot time in July of 2001. The group was made up of farmers and agri-business leaders from the state of Tennessee traveling to the politically volatile markets of Cuba to learn more about the country and its people. I was along to cover the trip as the official media and to say I was somewhat nervous is a total understatement.
Over the last several days as news has broken about the possible establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, I have had thoughts back to that trip of a lifetime where for a week we were completely out of contact with home, closely watched and on an adventure that I was glad I made. When I hear the discussion today about what we should be doing, as far as talking once again with Cuba, I have to think back to those days when I witnessed this island only 90 miles from our shore for myself.
After an hour of passport checks and visa sampling, our group was escorted outside the airport to an awaiting chartered bus. Parked among '56 and '57 Chevys, which seems to be the car of choice for the Cuban people, we were placed on a plush Mercedes-Benz Busscar that seemed to stand out as a hint of capitalism in the socialist countryside. The sign placed on the front of the bus, denoting us as from the USA, also made our presence very obvious to the Cuban people who resided in the capital city of Havana. This vehicle became our means of transportation for those five days, as well as our haven of reprieve from the humid and hot Cuban days.
Planning for this trip began months prior to actually leaving. Each member was required to have a passport, a visa from our government as well as the Cuban government and a travel affidavit giving us a specific license to travel to Cuba. Trips to Washington, D.C. were required to meet with Cuban officials so plans could be made for our group to visit with Cuban trade representatives once we arrived on Cuban soil. It was not a vacation but a trip designed to see for ourselves if there were possible new consumers in the country of Cuba for Tennessee agricultural products. Knowing we were not the first to travel this well-beaten path to Havana, we understood our goal, that making the right contacts was important and the more information we could consume could be the difference in selling Tennessee milk, soybeans, poultry and other locally grown farm products over current supplies imported to Cuba from other trading partners around the world such as China, who makes up a large portion.
One thing that did catch my attention as I traveled the streets of Havana was the fact that Cuba is a communist country. Billboards everywhere projected images of government leaders, rebellion heroes and support for socialism. Everywhere you looked you saw monuments to military leaders and the ever-present red star.
But, one thing that seemed to override all of those materialistic honors of government was the Cuban people. We were always treated with respect and gratefulness that we were there.
I found that there is one language that our two countries understand fluently. When I was packing for the trip, I placed a major league baseball in my camera case thinking I could maybe get a Cuban baseball player's autograph. I never did get an autograph, but whenever I wanted to get a crowd to talk to, I would take out the baseball and just sort of pitch it up in the air. Before long, I would hear the word "baseball" coming from our Cuban hosts. It opened doors to discussion and developed a friendly method of expressing friendship.
The Cuban people love baseball and enjoy talking about their teams and our American teams. The director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs walked all the way from one side of a crowded room just to talk baseball with me. It also gave me the opportunity to ask him some questions about trade that I just might not have gotten the opportunity to do without that round, white ball.
The baseball did not make it back to the USA with me. While making a diplomatic tour of a Havana cigar plant to see how they could use some of our tobacco for their products, I noticed a young, Cuban boy worker wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap. I approached the young man and asked him about his Yankees cap. He didn't understand me exactly, but he did express how proud he was of his cap. I reached in my camera bag and pulled out the baseball. As soon as he saw the regulation ball he immediately asked to hold and feel it for himself. Baseballs are scarce for most individuals in Cuba, along with many other things, and just to see a real major league ball was a thrill for the young man.
You should have seen his face when I told him he could have it for his very own. It was as if I had given him great riches. A large smile came across his face and his fellow workers immediately asked if they could hold the ball. I am sure after we left he became the most popular boy in his area.
Farm organizations for years have wanted someone to "throw out the first pitch." The Cuban people have "taken the field" and it is now up to us to "go to bat" for improved trade relations between the two countries.
-Pettus L. Read writes for the Tennessee Farm Bureau