Pawlenty flip-flops on Cuba just in time to cozy up to McCain

Ralph Kaehler's sons Seth and Cliff show Fidel Castro a presentation on cattle

Ralph Kaehler's sons Seth and Cliff show Fidel Castro a presentation on cattle

When Ralph Kaehler made his 15th trip to Cuba this spring, he grew more convinced than ever that the U.S.'s trade policy toward the island nation needed revamping.

Part of a trade delegation team looking to assess Minnesota's waning agriculture exports, the fourth-generation cattleman was joined by Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson and state Reps. Al Juhnke and Doug Magnus for the five-day excursion through the socialist republic.

As the team toured small, 1950s-style family farms scattered across the sultry Cuban countryside, they witnessed the tangible effects of U.S.-Cuba trade. More significantly, they saw products exported from their home state put to material use, from feeding troughs filled to the brim with Minnesota-produced distillers' grain to frail young calves slurping up Minnesota-formulated milk replacer.

"In all my trips down there, I know of no one who's gone there with an open mind and not come back against the embargo," says Kaehler. "The embargo not only hurts American farmers and businesses, it's also unfair to the Cuban people."

The dollar value of food and agriculture exports to Cuba nearly tripled between 2002 and 2007, thanks largely to a federal bill passed in 2000 that re-authorized the trade of those products on a cash basis. According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's projections, the state's ag industry would enjoy a $45.5 million increase in annual exports—with 900 added jobs to boot—if the embargo were lifted.

So one can imagine Kaehler's surprise when Gov. Tim Pawlenty came out against bolstering trade with Cuba. In late April, the fiscally conservative, free-trade Republican vetoed a non-binding resolution urging the president and Congress to end the embargo.

It was all the more surprising to Kaehler given his experience with the governor. "I remember meeting with him and a few Cuban inspectors at the state Capitol in 2004," says Kaehler. "He said he supported free trade and friendship with Cuba."

Of course, the elephant in the room is Pawlenty's Pennsylvania Avenue ambitions. The 58-year-old St. Paul native has long been included on the shortlist of John McCain's potential running mates.

And Senator McCain has long supported the embargo on Cuba. Three weeks ago, while addressing a crowd in Miami on Cuban Independence Day, the Arizona senator blasted Barack Obama for his decidedly less hard-line stance vis-à-vis Havana.

"The embargo must stay in place until these basic elements of democratic society are met," McCain said.

Florida is once again a crucial swing state in this election, and its sizeable anti-Castro Cuban population—one of the few Hispanic subsets that reliably votes Republican—makes a pro-embargo stance all but a prerequisite for prospective running mates. (For an example of how critical the anti-Castro vote is to White House bids, look no further than the 2000 election, in which Cuban-Americans put George W. Bush over the top by voting for him by a margin of 4 to 1.)

The governor's office dismisses any suggestion that the veto was politically motivated.

"That's not the reason he vetoed it," says Pawlenty spokesperson Alex Carey. "The reason is outlined in the veto letter."

In that letter, released April 25, Pawlenty wrote that he is "aware of the desire of Minnesota's agriculture community to increase trade with Cuba. However, this non-binding resolution is not appropriate and would not further that goal." He went on to say that "removing current trade restrictions would not necessarily increase sales of Minnesota agricultural products in Cuba."

But that flies in the face of statements made by Pawlenty's own agriculture commissioner one month earlier. "The good relationships we have established will help Minnesota companies negotiate new export contracts," Hugoson was quoted as saying in a March press release.

"I can feel a little sorry for Hugoson," says Kaehler. "It puts him in a bad spot. Going down there at the blessing of the governor, and then to see [the bill] vetoed.... I expected more from Governor Pawlenty. The veto absolutely surprised me."

Hugoson says the veto wasn't entirely shocking. "We realized it was a possibility," the agriculture commissioner told City Pages. "I know the governor felt that it wasn't appropriate for a state to get embroiled in this sitation. We went down with his blessing, so it's not as if the governor is adamantly against exploring trade possibilities. We're planning for the day when conditions warrant lifting the embargo."

Pawlenty has racked up a record number of vetoes, but knocking down a non-binding resolution puts him in a category all his own.

"As far as we can find out, no other governor in the state's history has vetoed a memorializing resolution," says Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-Minneapolis), who co-authored the motion. "He's vetoed two in the last two months."