It should come as no surprise, much less shock, that the elites of corporate agribusiness have finally succeeded in establishing an economic beachhead in Cuba after being shut out of that island country by a 40-year US embargo in the wake of Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution.
These agribusiness giants have been plying Congress with "soft money" and applying political muscle for decades to ease such trade restrictions so they could be the first through the door when the US embargo was ultimately lifted. Now in the name of "humanitarian relief" after the devastation caused by Hurricane Michelle they have finally got their foot solidly in the door.
Late in November Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM), ConAgra Foods Inc. and Riceland Foods reached sale agreements with Cuba, and announced deals worth an estimated total of more than $20 million. John Kavulich, president of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which monitors business with the island, said Cuba also is likely to buy poultry from Georgia-based Gold Kist, Maryland's Perdue Farms and Arkansas' Tyson Foods.
Farmer-owned Riceland Foods Inc., of Stuttgart, Ark., and Cargill Inc., of Minneapolis will sell tens of thousands of metric tons of wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, edible beans and cooking oil. Cargill said it expects to begin making deliveries in early January. The State Department has said it would support the sales because of their "humanitarian nature."
Cargill will send 20,000 tons of wheat, 19,000 tons of corn and 5,000 tons of soybean oil to Cuba, which is rebuilding its food supplies after the recent hurricane. Cargill did not disclose financial terms, but based on current market prices, the sale is reportedly worth about $5.4 million. While that amount is relatively insignificant to Cargill, which has annual revenues of about $50 billion, the company is "hopeful" that the sale is the beginning of ongoing agricultural trade between the two nations.
Cuba is estimated to want products totaling about $30 million, of which ADM, Cargill and Riceland appear to have won the largest share.
The most prominent among those corporate agribusinesses who have long sought to open the lucrative Cuban market has been ADM and its former CEO and board chairman Dwayne O. Andreas. ADM ("The Nature Of What's to Come") says it hopes the recent deals lead to further business with Cuba as the country presently imports $1 billion of foodstuffs from farm powers such as the European Union and Canada.
In past recent years ADM has hosted officials of Cuba's state-buying agency at its Decatur, Ill., headquarters, held talks with President Castro, and donated food to Cuba. Despite most of the major media's refusing to follow the money in the Elian Gonzalez story it was ADM who covertly managed that episode in its effort to curry the Cuban government's favor.
The fact was that the then-6-year-old Cuban boy, who was the center of the highly publicized custody battle between his Cuban father and Cuban-American relatives in Miami, may well have been nothing but a key player in such trade and marketing efforts by ADM.
Examining some of the lesser known facts of the controversy a curious pattern began to emerge highly suggesting that, in the words of Orlando Sentinel columnist Charley Reese, "little Elian Gonzalez has become a pawn in an international business scheme."
Based on research by the Archer Daniels Midland Shareholders Watch Committee, in the fall of 1995 Andreas, met with Fidel Castro for dinner in New York. In July 1996, Andreas announced that he was going to Cuba to see Castro and contemplated building a refinery in Cuba, but would do it through a Spanish subsidiary because of the US trade embargo.
It was then in the midst of the highly charged debate whether Elian Gonzalez should be returned to his father in Cuba or stay in Miami with relatives a meeting was arranged with the boy's grandmothers at the home of the president of Barry University. Coincidentally, Andreas is also a large contributor to Barry University, and his wife is a graduate and is past chairman of the board of trustees.
In late April the Washington Post reported that the fund paying the legal expenses for Juan Gonzalez, Elian's father, which had been coming from the United Methodist Church's Board of Church and Society, was being turned over to the National Council of Churches. The Methodist announcement came after the denomination's financial office decided such fund raising did not follow rules prescribed in the Methodist policy manual.
The Methodists, through the fund, paid lawyer Gregory B. Craig and his Washington firm, Williams & Connolly, through contributions designated for representing Gonzalez only, not for denominational programs. But many of the church's 8.4 million members, the Post noted, especially Cuban American Methodists in Miami, criticized the society's involvement.
It was the politically powerful law firm of Williams & Connolly who not only represented ADM unsuccessfully in its lysine price fixing suit, but also represented President Bill Clinton in his 1999 impeachment trail before the US Senate. Williams & Connolly, including Clinton's personal attorney David Kendall, has also been one among several attorneys representing FOX Television interests battling investigative reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson in their suit against their former employer Rupert Murdoch's FOX 13 TV station in Tampa Bay, Fla.
The origin of the National Council of Churches' role in bankrolling Gonzalez's attorney Craig, who, as columnist Reese noted, is "the high-priced lawyer who suddenly materialized to represent Juan Gonzalez, who couldn't afford two seconds of Craig's time," might well stem from the appointment in October 1999 of Andrew Young, a current ADM board member and member of its public-policy committee, as the new president of the National Council of Churches.
While the US should not shirk from providing "humanitarian relief" to wherever it is needed in the world one should be extremely wary when it comes to corporate agribusiness using the term to simply camouflage their attempts to develop new markets.
It was in the early 1950s that Congress enacted Public Law 480 designed to relieve US grain surpluses by authorizing the sale or bartering of surpluses abroad to those countries needing food commodities. It was not until almost a decade later that the program became know as the Food for Peace program.
In naming PL 480 the "Food for Peace" program Minnesota Senator (and long-time Cargill friend) Hubert H. Humphrey remarked: "I have heard ... that people may become dependent on us for food. I know that was not supposed to be good news. To me that was good news, because before people can do anything they have got to eat. And if you are looking for a way to get people to lean on you and to be dependent on you, in terms of their cooperation with you, it seems to me that food dependence would be terrific."
Since its inception, however, PL 480 has had its critics. Perhaps the most critical analysis of the program came in 1975 with the publication of The Fields Have Turned Brown: Four Essays on World Hunger authored by Susan DeMarco and Susan Sechler, at the time co-directors of the Agribusiness Accountability Project.
In their report they contended that "simple greed" more than generosity had motivated the administration of a food program designed to feed hungry people. In what amounted to a form of "economic imperialism," the USDA and the State Department in league with the
grain trade and corporate agribusiness used the program:
* "To dispose profitably of farm surpluses, which otherwise might create serious domestic economic problems;
* "To create new, or to expand or protect existing markets for US-owner interests;
* "To provide cheap capital for overseas investment by US enterprises;
* "To 'launder,' so to speak, military assistance which might have been challenged if so identified."
One of the most important results of these policies the two women went on to document meticulously, was that US agricultural trade policies forced a change in the eating habits of people in less developed countries and stifled their own agricultural production by making them dependent on US food stuffs.
Such use of food aid as "one of the chips in the poker game of international power politics," DeMarco and Sechler explained, and "so long as the major portion of US food aid is captive to overriding political and commercial concerns, it will do little to advance a goal of long-term food security for the hungry, and, more frequently, will even tend to disrupt that goal."
It has often been said if we don't learn from past mistakes we are bound to repeat them in the future so it behooves US family farmers, Cuban farmers, national and international humanitarian groups, and the Cuban government to keep a suspicious eye on the likes of ADM, Cargill, Riceland Foods, ConAgra, Perdue Farms, Gold Kist, and Tyson Foods as they come bearing their corporate "gifts."
A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett Washington 98203-0201; email firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ea1.com/CARP/