In a piece that marks the 1-year anniversary of restored relations with Cuba, Melvin Torres recalls the World Trade Center Arkansas’ trade mission to Cuba in 2016.
It was a not so normal Tuesday morning. The temperature outside was similar than that of Arkansas. The air was slightly more humid than in Arkansas. Familiar faces from The World Trade Center Arkansas, University of Arkansas, The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, The Rockefeller Institute, Bio-Tech Pharmacal, Southern Brown Rice, Heritage Grain, Cameron Smith & Associates, Integrity Grain, Camfil, Hannah’s Candles, Vestar Capital Partners, along with The Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture, and The Arkansas Rice Federation, all famous and influential people in their field were all there. Something was different; an Arkansian was talking to someone who did not speak English. Dan Hendrix was at a table with a white table cloth and his name on top of it. Sitting next to him, was a lady who displayed an air of confidence and looked as she was from somewhere in Arkansas but was speaking Spanish. At first sight, things looked like a normal meeting in a beautiful hotel with many powerful and respected academics, government officials, and business people. But there was still something different. The US flag that normally flies by itself was accompanied by a not so familiar flag with a single star.
There were tables around with the flag of Arkansas and this other not so familiar flag next to it. Trish Watkins from the World Trade Center Arkansas was walking around the room making sure all details were in place. Melvin Torres, also from the same institution, was talking a different language than usual with someone who looked very official. It was certainly not a normal day, place, nor group of people. Many of the participants had a not so familiar hearing aid attached and were obviously anxious with anticipation.
The flag next to the US flag was from Cuba and the hotel was the historic Hotel Nacional also in Cuba. The lady sitting next to the CEO and President of the World Trade Center was Maria de la Luz B’Hamel Ramirez, the Director of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment Trade Policy with North America for the Republic of Cuba. The humidity was coming from the Caribbean Sea which was blowing in a peculiar way with a mix of salt and fresh air. The event, was a Plenary Session with high Government officials from Cuba, Arkansas, and private and State institutions to discuss trade and relations between the two.
Nobody knew what to expect and the air of anticipation kept growing. At exactly 9:00AM in the morning, Mrs. Abeley Del Pozo Anaya took the podium and introduced herself and the agenda for the day. She then introduced the Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce Mr. Omar De J. Fernandez who talked about the relations between Cuba and Arkansas. He alluded to lifting the almost 60 year old embargo so Arkansas and Cuba can prosper together.
Next thing we know, Melvin Torres from the World Trade Center Arkansas took the stand and made a speech in Spanish about relations, friendship, and a new era with a new generation between Cuba and Arkansas. It was obvious that this gathering was different than any other. The crowd was listening mesmerized through their simultaneous translation devices. Some were shaking their heads in agreement and some were partially astonished not only by the speeches but by the historic moment taking place in that room full of the right people and in the middle of Havana, Cuba.
Soon after, Mr Dan Hendrix takes the podium and delivers a powerful speech. “… We at The World Trade Center Arkansas are on a revolutionary mission today – A mission of union to bring two partners together for mutual peace and prosperity through trade. We are living in a historic time. We are part of history not just spectators. This is a time where we will look back with pride and tell the next generation “I was part of this!”. Cuba has a partner in The World Trade Center Arkansas. To that extent, we have fully committed to bring the best of two worlds together. “Lo Mejor de Dos Mundos”. Our goal this week is to make significant and tangible progress to increase trade between Arkansas and Cuba through these meetings. I know we will leave this week with solid agreements that will continue the privileged relationship that we cherish so much between Arkansas and Cuba.”
At that time, it became evident, this was certainly a historic moment and that speech was a testament to what was to come. During the next few hours, the delegation from Arkansas and Cuba sat down and discussed agriculture, business, education, and trade in a very friendly manner, testament to the privileged position Arkansas has in Cuba and vice-versa.
During the next few days, the Arkansas delegation visited the Special Economic Development Zone of Mariel, farm coops, academic institutions, trade ministries, industrial ministries, agricultural and scientific research institutes.
The visit was described by Mr. Torres from the World Trade Center Arkansas as one that will “… create a long lasting relationship that will help both Cuba and Arkansas now and in the future. Relations between both are very strong and have never been better. We feel privileged to be part of uniting the best of both worlds. We had a very productive visit and anticipate discussions will continue to strengthen that relationship.” “We had powerful leaders in their industry from the University of Arkansas receiving MOU’s for their review. Government officials like The Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward visiting agricultural coops and learning more about cooperatives. Business giants from Arkansas discussing details of potential agreements within the manufacturing industry. Consumer Goods moguls talking to multiple companies and government agencies about options and possibilities for investment and trade. Agriculture giants and top education experts discussing areas of interest and synergy. Nonprofit organizations discussing renewable energy and other areas of human interest. This is a historic moment without a doubt…”.
Mr. Torres continued by saying “Cuba is the largest consumer of Rice in the region. Arkansas is the largest producer of rice in the United States. Cuba is the largest consumer of poultry in the region, Arkansas is amongst the top producers of poultry in the US. There are obvious synergies between both. The time is now, the place is here. There is only one thing between the best of both worlds, a 60-year-old Embargo against Cuba.”