Castro and the Kaehlers: How a Midwest farming family helped end
America's beef with Cuba
Foreign Correspondent By Eric Campbell
Updated earlier today at 12:23am
The United States has restored diplomatic relations with Cuba after 55
years of hostility, but little-known to many, a small Midwest farming
family played a role in bringing the two countries together.
The ceremonial reopening of the US embassy in Havana marked another step
in US president Barack Obama's attempt to end what many have regarded as
the United States' most irrational and unsuccessful foreign policy.
Since 1960, the US has tried and failed to oust the communist leadership
in Cuba by imposing a ban on trade and travel, but the communist
dictator Fidel Castro outlasted every US president before he handed
power to his brother Raul in 2008.
Mr Obama is now struggling with hardline Republicans who believe the
normalising of relations will undermine the quest for democracy in Cuba.
But 13 years ago, a rebel trade delegation showed just how easily the
hostilities could be ended.
In September 2002, the governor of Minnesota, former wrestling world
champion Jesse Ventura, defied the Bush administration to take a posse
of farmers and agribusinesses to Havana to meet Fidel Castro.
Among the delegation was a lanky cattle breeder named Ralph Kaehler,
with his wife Mena and their two sons Seth and Cliff, aged 11 and 13.
'He was very pleasant and nice to us'
To the dismay of big business representatives, Mr Castro took an
immediate shine to Mr Kaehler and his young sons, making them his guests
of honour at a state concert and giving them pride of place at the
signing of the first US cattle contract since the Revolution.
Mr Castro went so far as to anoint the boys as the future of US-Cuban
"He was very pleasant and nice to us. You know, whenever you're by a
political figure, you're just in awe. I mean, it was just amazing," Seth
Kaehler said at the time.
With Mr Castro's blessing, Ralph Kaehler began a brisk business with
Cuba exporting breeding stock and animal feed until the 2008 global
financial crisis crippled the trade.
Last month the Kaehlers returned to Cuba hoping Mr Obama's rapprochement
would help re-start the business.
Seth Kaehler, now 24, has followed his father in the cattle business
while Cliff Kaehler is keen to expand his budding business in solar
Embargo leaves farmers struggling to get hands on basic tools
Cuba has changed a lot since 2002. There is far less emphasis on
revolution – and far fewer revolutionary billboards.
Everyone is focused on finding extra income to cope with the crippled
One of the most visible signs of the new entrepreneurialism is the
number of 1950s cars in Havana, which have been bought up around the
country and restored so they can be used as taxis.
There is palpable excitement at the prospect of the US trade embargo
being lifted but there is also a determination to preserve Cuba's
culture from Western consumerism.
Cubans remain fiercely proud of the revolution and the independence it
brought, even if they are deeply frustrated by the economic turmoil.
Nobody wants McDonalds and Burger King on Havana's famous waterfront
strip, the Malecon, but they do want better jobs and better wages.
In rural Cuba, where it is almost impossible to get rudimentary farm
equipment, the needs are more basic.
The embargo, combined with the failure of socialist central planning,
has resulted in farmers struggling to access fertiliser or simple farm
tools like wire cutters.
Foreign Correspondent took the Kaehlers to meet a farming family in the
tobacco-growing centre of Vinales.
"We can't progress no matter how hard we work," trained biologist turned
farmer and entrepreneur Kenia Carriles said.
"Because of the embargo and the lack of commerce with other countries we
have been affected and in our daily lives.
"Everything is affected. Everyone is affected."
Meeting the Carriles family made Ralph Kaehler more determined to do
business with Cuba.
"We need to normalise our relations, open up trade, be a good neighbour
and keep things safe so it's better for both countries," he said.
But for now, there are obstacles that even the most enthusiastic farmer
must contend with.
Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Development has made it clear the lack of
credit and third country banking will be a huge barrier.
Mr Obama's moves to lift the embargo are unlikely to improve the
political situation in Cuba, but everyone hopes they will improve the
lives of everyday Cubans.
Source: Castro and the Kaehlers: How a Midwest farming family helped end
America's beef with Cuba - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting