HAVANA — The Saturday morning farmers market is packed with shoppers and overflowing with produce and missing one thing that might interest Nebraska farmers.
You can buy green tomatoes and pink guava, giant plantains and tiny potatoes, slabs of pork and even herbal medicines meant to cure your indigestion.
What you can't buy: beef. There's not a single sirloin or chuck roast in sight.
"All the beef we have goes to the government, who sells it to the tourists," says Talia, serving as our tour guide through the market. "Cubans have to buy it on the black market. Very expensive."
A decade ago, Nebraska leaders saw an opportunity to sell the state's ag products here, and sell they did, inking deals that moved millions of dollars of beef, beans and wheat from Nebraska fields and feedlots onto Cuban plates.
But today, those small-but-promising trade deals have disappeared, a reality that frustrates former Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman and other state leaders who blame both Cuba's economy and existing U.S. law.
As the embargo of Cuba enters its 56th year, the group of Nebraska politicians and ag leaders who have dealt with Cuba wonder: When will we start trading with this island off the coast of Florida like we trade with pretty much everyone else?
"We need to recognize at some point that Cuba is no longer a military power," Heineman says. "It's kind of hard to understand why the animosity still exists. Maybe if I lived down in Miami and had relatives treated very poorly by Castro, maybe you would feel differently. But (outside Florida) it just seems to me that most Americans under age 50 wonder ... should we be doing something different?"
THE NEW CUBA: DAY 7 OF THE SERIESFormer Gov. Dave Heineman made the most surprising of acquaintances — Cuban dictator Fidel Castro — during a time when Nebraska was making millions of dollars' worth of ag deals with Cuba. Today, that trade relationship is broken, and ag leaders say only ending the embargo will fix it. Above: A farmer works in a rice paddy to produce one of the staple crops of Cuba. Below: Yonder Alvarez sells sweet oranges in Havana. Fruit is often purchased on the street or at roadside stands in Cuba.
Heineman waded into the embargo debate in 2005 when he was governor and made his first trip to Havana — a trip few Republican politicians were then willing to take. President George W. Bush had recently tightened trade and travel rules for Cuba. The powerful Cuban-American lobby in South Florida — then almost exclusively made up of stridently pro-embargo, anti-Castro voices — warned politicians that they would face repercussions if they visited the island.
Heineman went anyway, the first of three trade missions he would make to Havana.
On one trip, Nebraska's governor, state ag leaders and a group of Nebraska farmers attended a baseball game with their Cuban counterparts. "They yelled at the umpires just like Americans do," Heineman says.
On another, they were summoned to the presidential palace for dessert. They stood as Fidel Castro entered the room in his signature green fatigues. Fidel began to talk, and Heineman remembers thinking how historic it was to be in the same room with the man who had helped cause the Cuban missile crisis.
And then Fidel kept talking, and kept talking, as 15 minutes became an hour, which became two hours, which became four. The Nebraskans stood the entire time.
"When he finally sat down I thought, 'Man, I should give him a four-hour lecture about Nebraska, see if he wants to stand through that.' "
But mostly, the Nebraskans did business in Cuba — trade negotiations that reminded a Springfield-area feedlot operator of trade with China, Eastern European countries and other sometime-enemies where the United States still manages to do business.
"The trip was the beginning of some thing that should have already been happening on an ongoing basis, which is us talking to a neighbor of ours who does live in our neighborhood," says Gerald Timmerman, the feedlot operator who went on the trade missions. "This idea that we should be isolating the neighbor, staring at him over the fence, that we can't even say hello ... it's strange."
To Timmerman, the opportunity in Cuba is blindingly obvious. The country eroded its land and damaged its soil by decades of destructive over farming. The state-run food distribution system is riddled with problems. Infamously, a few bottles of milk produced in western Cuba made a days-long journey around the country before being delivered to their final destination — a few miles from where those Cuban cows had< originally been milked. "Absurd," Raul Castro called that practice in 2007.
The degraded land, lack of farming knowledge and absence of modern equipment have led to this fact: Cuba must import the majority of its food.
A dozen years ago, Nebraska capitalized on that fact, making several deals, including one to sell a surplus of dry beans that greatly aided the then-struggling western Nebraska dry bean industry. But those deals did not lead to a continued Cuba-Nebraska relationship, as Heineman and others had hoped. In fact, Nebraska hasn't made a significant deal with Cuba since 2007, ag leaders say. Neither has Iowa, according to state leaders, though a delegation of Iowa politicians and business executives did travel to Cuba in January.
Why no recent deals? The embargo itself, Nebraska ag experts say. It's legal to sell U.S. crops and food to Cuba — that's one of the exceptions carved out in U.S. law — but that doesn't mean it's easy.
An example: Current U.S. law requires Cuba to pay upfront for all goods, with a bank in a third country serving as the middle man. That's strikingly different from how we sell products to almost every other country in the world, and it makes the trade harder both for the American company and the Cuban government.
President Barack Obama has opened diplomatic relations and loosened travel restrictions with Cuba, but any normalization of trade will come only when Congress repeals or alters the law.
"The executive branch has done what they think they can," says Greg Ibach, the director of Nebraska's Department of Agriculture since 2005. "Everything else is going to require Congress."
Cuba has taken its ag business elsewhere in recent years, in part to protest the embargo and in part because Cuba simply can't afford the more difficult trading process — or the higher-quality (and higher-priced) American goods. It's a decision that's costing American farmers: Cuba imported $1.87 billion worth of meat, corn, soybeans and other ag products in 2014, according to the federal government.
Only $300 million of that business went to American farmers, a total that's less than half of the $658 million in annual ag business that the U.S. did with Cuba as recently as 2008.
That's frustrating to Nebraska's ag industry, particularly when you consider that European, Asian and American tourists are flooding into Havana — customers who tend to demand high-quality food.
And Cuba has 11 million people. That's 11 million people who might want some Nebraska beef. That's 11 million people who might be able to afford it if the embargo is lifted and the Cuban economy improves.
"We fought the Vietnam War, and we found a way to reconcile with them," Heineman says. "And remember, here's an island that is: Right. Over. There."
A NEIGHT-DAY SERIES
Sunday: The new Cuba
Monday: Emerging entrepreneurs
Tuesday: Connecting to the world
Wednesday: Twisting path to Omaha
Thursday: Fighting for compensation
Friday: Rocking to "decadent" music
Today: Selling Husker agriculture
Tomorrow: Parting thoughts and images from Cuba
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