Friday, April 13, 2007

Pesos, Kooks and Otter's Cigar Mishap

Our Man in Havana's latest dispatch

Posted By on Fri, Apr 13, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Hotel Nacional, HAVANA—I’m in.

The local and tourist economies are two different beasts here.

Foreigners change their money (I brought Euros because they go a bit further here) for Peso Convertibles, called CUC or “Kooks” here. This peso is roughly equivalent to a U.S. dollar, though the exchange rate is penalized on U.S. dollars so that 1 Peso Convertible buys about 85 cents.

(Read an old story about that here.)

So the beer that I bought for a government official last night after he saved my ass (more on that later) was 1.50 Peso Convertible ... maybe $1.75.

I have no idea how much the café con leche that I am now sipping on the Hotel Nacional’s back veranda will cost.

But my breakfast this morning was a different story. Cubans U.S.e their “moneda nacional,” the Cuban peso. One convertible peso brings 24 Cuban pesos.

So my breakfast of fresh juice and a croqueta sandwich, eaten standing up near a food vending cart, was 5 peso Cubano—less than 25 cents U.S.!!

I didn’t have any Cuban pesos yet, so I gave the lady a convertible and she gave me a handful of change. The three-peso note is pretty cool—bright red ink and an image of Che Guevara on it.

As the sun bakes the damp air around my laptop into a near steam, mingling with the steam rising from the coffee, members of the Idaho delegation are in their rooms packing, or maybe still asleep after a white-gloved state dinner and cabaret show last night.

Most of them will leave this afternoon, though a few are staying on an extra day for further trade meetings.

Ed LeVasseur, whose Meridian-based seafood and meat import company, Mako Marketing already does some business with Cuba, has reached a potential multimillion dollar deal with Alimport, the Cuban food import enterprise.

“It’s the same as doing business with Wal-Mart,” he told me a few days ago, ecstatic at reaching an agreement on chicken, mackerel pork and juice imports with the Cubans. He does not expect the deal to be finalized for several months.

There have been no official announcements of other trade deals, and the Idahoans and Cubans are saying this is just the start of talks.

Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska was here recently, and signed up to $30 million in trade agreements. But those deals had largely been negotiated before the official visit, a local reporter here told me.

Gov. C. L. “Butch” Otter said members of the delegation will reconvene in Boise in two weeks to follow up on the visit and determine what else Idaho businesses need to help them seal deals in Cuba.

On Thursday the group met with very knowledgeable potato farmers who work on a farm cooperative about an hour east of Havana. Otter quizzed them on their knowledge of potato varieties, and they passed with flying colors.

Idaho delegates were disappointed that the fields were too wet to tour. The potato harvest had just been sent off on trucks the day prior.

Otter also delivered a box full of back issues of the Hemingway Review to officials at Hemingway’s old house, La Finca Vigia, where two Idaho pronghorn heads adorn the dining room wall.

The governor enjoyed a Cuban cigar Thursday night, but was chastised earlier in the day as he almost cut a hand-rolled custom cohiba in half to share with Marty Peterson of the University of Idaho.

While the international press in Havana has been waiting all week to speak to the governor, it does not look like he will hold a press conference on the tarmac, as many delegations do.


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