CubaNews / July 2004
By Larry Luxner
John Parke Wright IV leans forward in his chair in the lobby of Havana’s Hotel Nacional, his Stetson marking him as the only obvious cowboy in a sea of visiting American food executives in business suits.
Wright is talking passionately about why the U.S. embargo against Cuba is cruel and disgusting. But five minutes into our interview, the white-haired gentleman suddenly jumps out of his seat, pulls a harmonica from the pocket of his guayabera and joins a hotel band performing “Mayari” and other ballads made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club.
A few songs and a round of applause later, Wright is back in his chair, thrilled over the latest connection he has just made with ordinary Cubans.
“This is an agricultural-based society,” the Florida cattle rancher tells CubaNews in a voice full of genuine enthusiasm. “Country is cool here. The guajiros comprise the majority of people here. That’s why I’m so motivated to help a place like Cuba.”
Wright, 54, is a lifelong Floridian, a devout Catholic and the owner of Naples-based consulting and trading firm J.P. Wright & Co. We spoke to him at length during a three-day conference in April sponsored by Cuban food purchasing agency Alimport.
Among his best friends is Ramón “Mongo” Castro, Fidel’s older brother. The two men have been frequently photographed together — riding horses, enjoying Cohiba cigars and talking about cattle. Their most recent meeting followed the signing of a lucrative contract between Wright’s company and Alimport to sell beef cattle to the island nation.
“I’m here to re-establish the supply of America’s best cattle from the state of Florida to Cuba, and to help increase Cuba’s beef production,” said Wright, explaining his presence in Havana. “I was invited to help in this area last year, with the supply of 150 head of dairy cattle from New York and Pennsylvania. This was done in two shipments, one from the Port of Jacksonville and the other from Port Everglades, and it was very successful.”
The upcoming shipment of 300 head of cattle will be the first of its kind from Florida to Cuba in over 40 years. It wouldn’t be happening at all if not for the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (TSRA), which for the first time since the 1960s allows the Cuban government to buy U.S. food commodities on a cash-only basis.
Wright originally planned to send 250 head back in March or April, but the shipment was delayed because of a single case of mad-cow disease discovered in Washington state late last year; 50 Florida cattle were later added to the shipment.
As it stands now, 80 Brangus heifers will come from the Strickland Ranch in Manatee County, 80 Brafords from the Adams Ranch in Fort Pierce, 50 Black Angus cattle from the Baldwin Ranch in Ocala, 81 Beef Masters from other Florida ranches and three bulls from each breed.
The total shipment, which now includes 288 head of cattle and 12 bulls, is worth about $750,000 and is scheduled to depart Florida’s Port Manatee this month or next.
Wright said that besides Cuba, he also supplies cattle to the Bahamas, Dominican Re-public and Jamaica. He also does occasional consulting on China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other Asian countries, thanks to the 10 years he spent as a trader in Beijing.
But it’s clear that Wright’s real passion is Cuba — a passion rooted in the fact that his family has been shipping Florida cattle to the island since the 1840s, and that Lykes Brothers, a shipping firm started by his great-great-grandfather, had extensive cattle holdings in Cuba before the revolution.
Between 1868 and 1878, Florida cattlemen exported more than 1.5 million cattle to Cuba. Following Cuba’s first war of independence against Spain, demand for cattle was especially high, and ships belonging to James McKay, one of Wright’s ancestors, carried 100,000 head of beef cattle to Cuba in 1879 alone.
Following Batista’s overthrow in 1959, revolutionary forces expropriated a 15,000-acre ranch Lykes Brothers operated near the eastern Cuban city of Bayamo and converted it into a sugar cooperative, Wright recently told the Miami New Times.
Despite a $3.6 million claim for the land, Wright doesn’t appear to hold any grudges; on the contrary, he says he’d like to help the Cuban people as much as possible.
“The potential for Cuba’s economy to grow is significant. With imports and exports and open trade, Cuba’s economy would bounce back in a heartbeat,” said Wright as he proudly showed CubaNews articles about himself in the Naples Daily News and pre-revolutionary magazine ads for his family’s cattle business.
Born in Washington, D.C., Wright was raised in Tampa and attended the University of Florida in Gainesville, though he graduated from Tampa’s University of South Florida. From 1972 to 1981, he was in China, working for the British firm Gardin Matheson & Co., which were Lykes agents in Beijing.
“We sent the first U.S.-flag ship to China in March 1979, and on Apr. 18, 1979, the first Chinese ship docked in Seattle, re-establishing two-way trade between the two countries after 30 years,” he recalled.
“I’m firmly convinced, after seeing the opening of trade with China 25 years ago, that the same course is urgently needed with regard to Cuba. Deng Xaoping was smart enough to see that the future of China was based on opening trade with the West. Cuba, especially with Pedro Alvarez at the helm of Alimport, is smart enough to see that the opening of trade with the U.S. is important to the well-being of his country.”
Wright is a friendly, soft-spoken sort, but he gets angry when asked about the embargo. “To me, it’s as simple as this: There’s been a punitive embargo placed against this country by the United States, and the people it’s hurting the most are average Cubans. This is not genocide, but it’s as close to punishing a whole nation as any punishment can be.”
Referring to Fidel, he said: “No man is an island, but no island is only one man. And this is where the Americans are missing the boat.”
Wright doesn’t intend to miss any boats. His personal goal, he says, is to put milk and meat on the table for everyone in Cuba, especially children.
“The whole country is suitable for cattle, from Pinar del Río to Oriente. Our cattle are in several provinces now, and they’re doing extremely well.”
The key, he says, is “to put America’s best ranchers together with Cuba’s best ranchers” and let them exchange information about breeding, techniques, fertilizers and other relevant topics.
“That’s the kind of thing cattlemen like to do,” he said, though he added that Washington’s embargo against Cuba has cut off the supply of agricultural necessities like tractors, fertilizers, seeds and irrigation equipment.
“After 43 years of an economic embargo imposed by the U.S., Cuba doesn’t have a surplus of cash to go out and buy everything. It’s a question of priorities. With cattle, the first step is to select the right breeds of cattle that can take the tropical heat and disease. That’s why bringing cattle from New York and Pennsylvania was such a good choice because those cattle do well in Florida.”
Wright says that Alimport’s Alvarez — profiled by this newsletter several months ago (see CubaNews, April 2004 issue, page 8) — foresees importing 100,000 head of U.S. beef cattle a year once the embargo is over.
Tourism would thrive too, say experts, with Florida cashing in handsomely as tourists use the state as a jumping-off point to discover the long-forbidden island.
“Shipping cows to Cuba is one thing, but shipping people to Cuba is far more important,” says the rancher. “Miami is the biggest cruise ship capital in the world, and the cruise ship industry really ought to be focused on Cuba. I have not heard of one cruise line company trying to open up cruise tours to Cuba.”
Yet that’s unlikely to happen as long as George Bush is in the White House.
Recent actions point to a toughening of U.S. policy toward Cuba, with the Bush administration making it harder every day for Cuban-Americans to visit the island or send remittances to family members — all in an effort to deprive the Castro government of dollars.
“It’s sad that the U.S. government would try to starve a people to change a regime, especially our Cuban friends. To deny a family member the right to send money anywhere in the world isn’t right, but the money will be sent anyway. No government can stop kindness. That money will get where it’s needed.”
Interestingly, while Wright lavishes kind words on his friend Ramón Castro, calling the 80-year-old a “nice, generous man,” he offers little praise for younger brothers Fidel or Raúl or their communist system of government.
On the other hand, Wright — mindful of potentially lucrative Alimport beef contracts down the road — is reluctant to criticize the Castro regime in any way, especially within earshot of Cuban officials who may be lurking around the lobby of the Hotel Nacional.
And Wright politely declines to discuss last year’s dissident crackdown or any of the other human rights abuses committed by Havana that have outraged most of South Florida, the nation and the civilized world.
“Issues regarding personal freedoms, the right of free speech, private property, things that we Americans tend to take for granted, those are issues that people far more gifted than myself can resolve,” he says, eager to return to the subject of cattle. “My advice is, let’s get our diplomats to talk. I’ve never seen so many unfriendly diplomats in my life.”