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Minnesota trade delegation heads to Cuba

WILLMAR -- If the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba ends, which Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar hopes happens soon, Minnesota should be well-positioned to expand its ag market with the communist island.

Juhnke will be part of a 13-member agricultural delegation that's going to Havana this weekend to help make that happen.

The meetings between Minnesota and Cuban officials should help lay the "groundwork" for the future when Cuban markets are fully open.

"We want to be positioned for when that day comes," said Juhnke, who is chairman of the House Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Finance Committee.

Juhnke is one of two Minnesota legislators invited on the five-day trip by Minnesota Agricultural Commissioner Gene Hugoson. Representatives from Minnesota agricultural businesses, commodity groups and commodity traders are going, as well as Rep. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton.

Juhnke said it's good to have elected officials, as well as business leaders, as part of the delegation to send the message that state government leaders are very interested in strengthening the trade relations with Cuba.

In 2000, the U.S. relaxed the sanctions to allow food and agricultural products to be traded with Cuba. Minnesota began selling agricultural products, including beans, grain, milk replacer and livestock, to Cuba in 2002.

Citing the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Juhnke said the total U.S. sales of agricultural goods to Cuba reached a record of high of $431 million last year. Minnesota exports were valued at $18.3 million.

Juhnke said there's "great interest" in expanding the existing ag market and adding dried distillers grain, which is a byproduct from ethanol production. The Cubans are interested in feeding the product to livestock.

"I'm looking forward, as chair of the ag committee, to try and open up those doors even further," he said. "It can only be a positive for Minnesota agriculture."

The trip to Cuba could help agriculture close to home, with the potential to find a new market for dried distillers grain from ethanol plants in Atwater or Granite Falls, dairy products processed in Litchfield and turkey processed in Willmar.

"It really does affect our home counties," Juhnke said.

The itinerary for the Saturday to April 2 trip includes meetings Monday with the minister of commercial exterior and with Pedro Alvarez Borrego, president of Allimport, the Cuban trade office.

During the day of April 1, the group will tour Cuban farm cooperatives and in the evening the Minnesota delegation will host a reception for Cuban officials.

This isn't the first time Minnesota has sent a delegation to Cuba.

Gov. Jesse Ventura went to Cuba in 2002, the same year Minnesota began marketing food and agricultural products there.

"I will give him credit for opening the doors," Juhnke said of Ventura. "Now we've got to continue that."

Another Minnesota delegation traveled to Cuba last fall.

With the U.S. fully involved with trade in other communist countries, like China, Juhnke said, "I wonder what good it's doing at this point" to continue the sanctions against Cuba.

He said he expects to see Canadians and Europeans vacationing on the beaches of Cuba. "The rest of the world does trade with Cuba."

He said he hopes the U.S. is moving in that direction and that his "once in a lifetime" trip to Cuba can soon be experienced by other Minnesotans.