Thursday, April 12, 2007

Travels With Frank

Cuba Dispatch Part 2

Posted By on Thu, Apr 12, 2007 at 4:00 AM

HAVANA—Wednesday was all about peeling paint and south Florida electoral college votes for Melaleuca president Frank VanderSloot.

VanderSloot, a quiet but thoughtful participant in the governor’s mission to Cuba, has made a fortune selling health and beauty products around the world, from a base in Idaho Falls. VanderSloot has his nose buried in a book entitled “1491” here, even during lunch.

He thinks he knows why the beautiful colonial-era buildings of Havana are in such disrepair.

It’s because communism breeds complacency, he tells me, as we descend the marble steps of a weathered old home in central Havana. He is eager for me to agree. The building now houses a paladar, or privately run restaurant: “the paladar most frequented by the international jet set,” according to one reviewer.

VanderSloot had just treated about a dozen members of the Idaho delegation to lunch and a mojito. He did it so efficiently that no one realized the bill was already paid.

Earlier, VanderSloot had told me that he does not expect to broker any trade deals with the Cubans.

“Our business model depends on the entrepreneurial spirit,” he said. “That doesn’t appear to be something that’s on the horizon.”

There is a different kind of spirit that pervades Cuba. One that is foreign to the group of businessmen, farmers and academics traveling with the governor.

Despite the peeling paint and chipped concrete, the interiors of the homes here are scrubbed to perfection. Their cars, most of them, are lovingly polished. Pants and shirts are neatly pressed.

And there is more on the horizon. The city is now dotted with privately-run restaurants, that operate on a different timetable and profit motive than Americans are used to.

The home where I am staying, a few blocks from the Hotel Nacional, is a privately-run, government-licensed guest house.

The Idahoans are negotiating with an independent food-import business that is chartered by the Cuban government.

VanderSloot, who left this morning, has no problem with Cuba. He said it poses no threat to the United States and can’t see why we still have such harsh policies toward the tiny island, just to garner a few extra votes in Florida.

“Why does our country have such a big problem with Cuba?” he asks.

It’s a conclusion most members of the delegation have drawn during this short visit.

Gov. C. L. “Butch” Otter attended a presentation at a busy Havana health clinic Wednesday morning, but I did not catch up with him for the rest of the day. Outside the busy tree-shaded clinic, the governor and his wife, First Lady Lori Otter, loaded into a black Mercedes with two Cuban police motorcycles trailing behind.

The rest of the Idahoans, except a few executives who were working on trade negotiations, toured a hospital and visited with agriculture and biotechnology officials.

Retired Idaho House Speaker Bruce Newcomb spent Wednesday morning talking beef with the Cuban food import company, Alimport.

“They really know how to negotiate,” Newcomb said. “They use the hammer on you.”

One ambassador from Idaho tracked down a nematode expert, and a group threw a few cold ones back at the Floridita, where a life-size statue of Ernest Hemingway graces the bar.

Watch this space for more updates from Boise Weekly's reporter in Cuba


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