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Ventura meets Castro
By Michael Khoo
Minnesota Public Radio
September 27, 2002

Gov. Jesse Ventura will broadcast his weekly radio show from Havana on Friday. Ventura is traveling in Cuba as part of the U.S. Food and Agribusiness Exhibition, which he officially opened during a ceremony with Cuban President Fidel Castro on Thursday. Ventura also directed Castro to a livestock exhibit set up by Minnesota farmers.

Ralph Kaehler, who farms near Rochester, talks with Cuban President Fidel Castro. Castro peppered the family with questions about the livestock.
(MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)

Sharing a stage with Fidel Castro was not, by Gov. Ventura's own admission, something he had ever expected. But after acknowledging the Cuban leader and other dignitaries, Ventura advised exhibitors and guests never to rule anything out.

"I never dreamed in my lifetime that I would stand here in the great country of Cuba. But it proves to me, just as it did when I ran for governor of Minnesota, that anything can happen," he said.

Ventura and Castro had little time to speak with each other, but Castro did say -- through an interpreter -- that he was pleased with Ventura's remarks at the opening ceremony.

Ventura, in turn, did what he had promised to do: Steer Cuban officials to Minnesota farm products. The governor introduced Castro to farmer Ralph Kaehler and his family. The Kaehlers arrived in Cuba with hogs, sheep, bison, and cattle from their farm outside Rochester and from other family-owned farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Castro peppered the family with questions about the livestock, and took a rather keen interest in the Kaehlers' two sons: Cliff, 13, and Seth, 11.

"And when are you planning to learn Spanish?" Castro asked through an interpreter.

"Hopefully, I'll be really good by this time next year," said Cliff.

"Your father should send you here on vacation," Castro replied.

"We thought we would come back to see our livestock when we sell more down here," said Ralph Kaehler, who hopes to export breeding stock to Cuba. He says he was surprised by how approachable Castro seemed to be, and also by his knowledge and interest in livestock.

"It was like sitting down with a farmer at our table. We talked about the animals, what they were, how old they were. You know, he was impressed with the size of the sheep. When he asked his weight and got it, I told him about 200 lbs. He said that's bigger than he is. But it was discussing agriculture between agriculture people, and you could tell he was enjoying it," he said.

Ventura, for his part, says he was struck by Castro's seemingly good health.

"For his age, he looks in pretty good physical shape. And if our policy is is we're going to wait until he's gone, I would say we may be waiting a long time," Ventura said.

Ventura has publicly called for normalizing relations with Cuba sooner rather than later, and he discussed the point during an afternoon meeting with Cuba's minister of agriculture.

The governor says he and Minnesota agriculture commissioner Gene Hugson discussed what hot commodities Cuba might sell to Minnesotans if U.S. laws were relaxed to allow importation of Cuban goods. Ventura says he expects Cuban coffee and, of course, cigars, would be popular. But he says most of the discussion focused on what Minnesota producers could offer.

And back on the exhibition floor the answer was, in part, beans: black beans and pinto beans, to be exact.

Tim Corunyea, an executive vice-president with Northarvest Bean Growers, says the company already made a small shipment of dried beans to Cuba last July. And the previous distributers located his booth to inquire about purchasing more.

"They enjoyed our quality in that point in time and right now we're in the market and want some more. So our objectives in that earlier sale seem to have made an impression on them, and things are starting to show a little momentum at this point," said Corunyea.

Corunyea says he expects the negotiating to turn more intense when officials from the Cuban import agency Alimport visit the trade show. In total, Cuba is expected to purchase $165 million worth of American farm goods this year, catapulting the country into 51st place for U.S. agricultural products. Two years ago, the country ranked 288th out of 288.