Iowa farmer hosts top Cuba officials, gets cigars

The Des Moines Register

By: Kevin Hardy

Only a few years ago, it wouldn't have seemed possible.

But on Friday morning, Aaron Heley Lehman's organic farm in Polk City played host to some of Cuba's top governmental officials.

"It's just unbelievable," Lehman said.

He recently had cleaned up the yard and mowed the lawn in anticipation of a visit from Cuban Agriculture Minister Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Cuba's ambassador to the United States, José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez, was also on hand Friday.

The two agriculture officials spent the day touring central Iowa, visiting DuPont Pioneer in Johnston, Iowa State University's seed center and Lincolnway Energy in Nevada. In Polk City, they briefly chatted with Lehman before holding a news conference in front of one of his tractors.

The visit represented only the third time such a high-ranking official from Cuba has visited the United States.

The minister and the secretary called for increased cooperation between U.S. and Cuban farmers.

"We have a lot to learn from each other," said the former Iowa governor. "This training relationship can not only be a benefit to American farmers, it can be an equal benefit to Cuban farmers. And it has to be. Trade must be a two-way street."

Vilsack said an improved relationship with Cuba can begin with agriculture.

He reminded reporters of then-Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev's visit to Iowa in 1959, at the height of the Cold War. Khrushchev visited Iowa State University and a Coon Rapids farm on the high-profile trip.

"Abraham Lincoln once said that the best way to eliminate an enemy is to make a friend," Vilsack said. "I don't know of anything more powerful in making friendships and eliminating past challenges than agriculture."

Rollero said farmers in the United States and Cuba have similar interests and challenges. He mentioned water quality, sustainability efforts and emerging seed technologies. He said he left the Pioneer facility "favorably impressed."

"There are many areas of agriculture in which we have common views," Rollero said through an interpreter. "And what is left to be done is to deepen our collaboration."

Like those in other states, Iowa businesses have been eyeing opportunity in Cuba since President Barack Obama began re-establishing diplomatic relations. Vilsack has previously said he expects such diplomatic visits will put pressure on Congress to lift the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba.

After their remarks Friday, Lehman and Rollero exchanged gifts a few steps from the red farmhouse.

For the agriculture minister: some caps, an Iowa Farmers Union coffee mug, an Iowa Organic Association T-shirt and soap his son made from goat's milk. For the farmer: a box of Cuban cigars.

'90-mile bridge to Cuba'

Later in Des Moines, officials celebrated the formation of a group designed to boost trade between Cuba and the U.S. The Engage Cuba Iowa Council is the seventh such statewide organization. It's made up of local business, agriculture and education leaders.

James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group working on U.S.-Cuba policy, said decades of "isolationist" policies through the trade embargo have proved futile.

"It's failed," he said. "It's failed the United States. It's failed the people of Iowa. And it's failed the Cuban people."

Though the United States is severely restricted in doing business with Cuba, those regulations were relaxed in 2000 to allow for agricultural exports to Cuba.

Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, said the United States was once the largest importer of food to Cuba. It is now the fifth-largest exporter, behind the European Union nations, Brazil, Argentina and Vietnam.

"Cuba needs to import 80 percent of their food," he said. "Much of these products can be delivered by Iowa farmers."

Aside from the business interests, Bishop Richard Pates pointed out the humanitarian costs of political isolation and communism in Cuba. Pates visited Cuba in 2012 with Pope Benedict XVI. He said he met with many Cubans living in poverty who were depressed and hopeless.

Pates, the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines, said better relationships with the U.S. could help the people of Cuba. He invoked Pope Francis' message of "building bridges."

"We're all one human family. We're all brothers and sisters," Pates said. "I suggest a 90-mile bridge to Cuba is the answer to their future and will impact our future very positively as well."