The scene in the one of the meeting rooms at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, Cuba, must have brought back a lot of memories for Gilberto Smith.
Smith may have been the only one of the chefs assembled for the “American Rice in Cuba Cuisine” event who could remember when the Hotel Nacional was the “cradle” of American tourism in Cuba, as he described it.
Smith, now president emeritus of the Cuban Culinary Federation, has quite a history himself. He was Meyer Lansky's personal chef in the 1950s before Cuban President Fidel Castro came to power and the late Mafia boss left Cuba for good.
But on this night, Smith said he's just happy to see a group of Americans from the USA Rice Federation, which sponsored the event, enjoying themselves in Cuba.
“I am thrilled by the brotherhood and fraternity being displayed here,” Smith told the audience assembled for an exchange of speeches prior to a sampling of dishes made from American rice. “I am so grateful that we can come together in friendship for this occasion.”
The chefs, who were brought in from all of Cuba's provinces, prepared an array of dishes that ranged from a whole lobster in a bed of rice to a warehouse-shaped building made from different varieties of paddy, brown and milled rice.
“We are overwhelmed with the chefs' creativity, style and efforts,” said Lee Adams, chairman of the USA Rice Federation delegation that traveled to Cuba on a trade mission Aug. 25-26. “It is an obvious result of passion for their profession, and I can assure you that nowhere in the world has more been done with U.S. rice than here in Cuba.
“In Cuba, they say ‘there is no meal without rice,’ emphasizing the absolute first place that rice occupies on the plate of the Cuban people.”
Adams, president of American Rice Inc. in Houston, said the event was not the first in which the USA Rice Federation has partnered with the Cuban Culinary Federation and others to promote the use of American rice in Cuba.
“For the past four years, we have worked extensively in your country to conduct activities which highlight how U.S. rice can save on cost and produce a more nutritious product at homes, in hospitals, schools, institutions, at the workplace and at restaurants,” he said.
“As many of your chefs will remember, in 2002, we sponsored the first ever Cuba-USA Rice Federation culinary contest during which 40 of the top chefs in Cuba competed with their recipes using U.S. rice — most of them for the first time.”
Adams told the chefs and members of the Cuban press attending the event that USA Rice Federation leaders understand the difficulties they face in purchasing U.S. rice, “and we will do our utmost to remove all constraints on our rice trade with your country.”
Adams' comments during the American Rice in Cuban Cuisine event and at the Cuba-USA Rice Federation Rice Conference earlier on Aug. 25 may have helped assuage some of the irritation Cuban officials have felt over new restrictions placed on payment terms by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Late last year, OFAC issued new rules requiring that payment be received from Cuba before U.S. shipments of rice and other products left U.S. ports instead of when they landed in Cuba.
USA Rice Federation said that shipments of U.S. rice were down 50 percent by volume and 62 percent by value in January-May 2005 compared to January-May 2004, primarily because of the new regulations.
“Because Cuban officials cannot travel to the United States and inspect the loading facilities and rice warehouses, it takes a great leap of faith on their part to buy U.S. rice sight unseen,” said one USA Rice official. “The fact they buy U.S. rice at all is a testament to how much they value our rice.”
During an interview before the Cuban Cuisine event, Pedro Alvarez Borrego, chairman and CEO of ALIMPORT, the Cuban food-buying agency, said Cuba's imports of rice could grow from the current level of 712,000 metric tons per year to 750,000 to 800,000 metric tons in the next two years.
“But American rice farmers may not share in that increase if we are confronted with more restrictions on trade between our countries,” he said. “It will be up to American farmers to work with Congress to ease the restrictions.”
Cuban President Fidel Castro voiced similar concerns during a five-and-one-half hour meeting with Adams and other members of the USA Rice Federation delegation.
He told the U.S. rice farmers, millers and merchants that his government intends to provide each of Cuba's 11.2 million people with another kilogram (2.2 pounds) of rice per month (above the current 5 pounds). As part of that effort, he said, ALIMPORT would be purchasing 100,000 metric tons of paddy rice and 30,000 metric tons of milled rice, beginning in September.
Castro and Adams appeared to get on well during the meeting in which they sat across from each other at a giant conference table in Castro's offices.
After Castro made a point about exchange rates, Adams replied, “Mr. President, I'm just a country boy from south Texas, so I don't know much about currency values.”
Listening to his interpreter, Castro shot back in Spanish: “Well, I'm just a country boy from Cuba and …‥”
The Cuban president told the USA Rice Federation leaders that Cuba has purchased 500,000 metric tons of rice this year and will need more. “We're not one-day customers,” he said. “We have to be able to buy again.”
He alluded to the resumption of trade between the United States and Vietnam, which were at war 30 years ago. “Who would have thought that one day you would have trade with Vietnam?” he said. “We have not had any bloodshed between the United States and Cuba.”
If the USA Rice Federation leaders had any doubts about the value of the American Rice in Cuban Cuisine event, they were dispelled the next day.
Members of the group who went to lunch at a restaurant in the former St. Anthony's School in old Havana were met by the chef at the entrance. He was wearing the chef's hat and apron with the USA Rice Federation logo that had been presented to him at the event the night before.”