COLUMBIA - Critics of South Carolina's proposed trade agreement with Cuba say state officials are ignoring the totalitarian regime's poor human rights record for economic gain.
Cuba has signed a letter of intent to buy up to $10 million worth of produce, livestock and poultry from the state, South Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Charles Sharpe, of Aiken County, said in an interview Tuesday at the Capitol.
"The fact is they're out to make a profit," said Mariela Ferretti, the spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami. "The fact is, to make a profit, they're willing to sell to a tyrant."
Mr. Sharpe was in the communist country last week from Wednesday to Saturday, with Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and Rep. Harry "Chip" Limehouse, R-Charleston County, he said.
They dined and spent about four hours with President Fidel Castro, who, for all but an hour of the time, told the South Carolina contingent about Cuba, Mr. Sharpe said.
"He wants to take care of that country," he said of Mr. Castro, who allowed Mr. Sharpe to tour Cuba's capital city of Havana and gave him a signed box of cigars.
"It's just like walking down main street in Columbia," he said. "There's no difference."
While U.S. companies have been able to export goods to Cuba for about two years, the federal government still restricts negotiations with the country and has strongly urged Mr. Castro to abandon his dictatorship for democracy. He has ruled the country's 11 million people for more than 40 years.
Rather than push Cuba toward a democratic government, the opposite has happened, President Bush's under secretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs, Alan Larson, told the Senate Finance Committee in September.
Last spring, the Castro regime arrested and sentenced 75 political activists to prison terms. Mr. Larson said it was one of "the most egregious acts of political repression in the Americas in a decade."
The United Nations Human Rights Commission has sanctioned Cuba all but one of the past 12 years, Ms. Ferretti said, adding that Mr. Sharpe probably saw the Cuba Mr. Castro wanted him to see. The agricultural commissioner said he toured the country with Cuban officials in government vehicles.
"People are afraid on the street corner to voice their opinion," she said of Cuba. "That itself is evidence of the culture of fear there.
"What really worries me is someone who supposedly should know better could be persuaded by an aging dictator. It's just a sad expression of what people could be led to believe."
Mr. Sharpe said trading with Cuba was no different than trading with China, a country with a similar past of human rights violations that has become a regular trade partner with the United States.
"We're just feeding the people of the world," he said. "It helps our economy. It helps our farmers."
North Carolina, Alabama, Iowa, Indiana and Kansas also have tentative agreements to trade with Cuba, officials from the country told Mr. Sharpe.
Though it can import goods from the United States, Cuba cannot export goods back. Cuba must buy goods from the United States with cash, and the transactions must be complete within three days. The country is billions of dollars in debt.
So far, the Cuban government has ordered 100 Jersey cows and 5,000 tons of chicken from South Carolina. The state already has shipped a small amount of lumber and canned goods to Cuba, Mr. Sharpe said, and because of the ports in Charleston, the state stands to do more business with the country in the future.
"We have opened the possibility for a lot of trade," he said.
Reach Josh Gelinas at (803)279-6895 or firstname.lastname@example.org.