Alabama tractors till the soil of U.S.-Cuban cooperation

Saul Berenthal and Horace Clemmons have a dream. They want to outfit the farmers of Cuba with small, customizable, easy-to-repair tractors. Cuban-born Berenthal and Alabama native Clemmons are the co-owners of Cleber LLC, an American firm which, if all goes as planned, will soon be setting up a tractor manufacturing plant in the Mariel Special Economic Zone.

In February, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) – the body responsible for enforcing the blockade against Cuba – approved a license for Cleber to go ahead with plans to establish an assembly facility in the foreign investment area just west of Havana.

Their product, the Oggún, is named after the god of iron in the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería. It is aimed at the small farms which make up the backbone of Cuba’s agricultural sector. Clemmons says the company is proud to be taking steps to help “develop the Cuban economy” and provide “a means for farmers to directly benefit from their efforts.”

Cleber, whether its owners completely realize it or not, is a pioneer in the effort to normalize economic relations between the United States and Cuba. It is one of the first companies to receive an OFAC license since President Obama began his push for normalization, and it will likely be the first U.S. manufacturer to open up in Cuba since the 1959 revolution.

The company is the beneficiary of one of the few powers available to Obama in his effort to end the blockade. Even under the terms of the so-called embargo, the president can encourage U.S. companies to do business with Cuba as long as they are able to meet the licensing terms set by the Treasury and Commerce departments and can demonstrate a benefit to the Cuban economy in the sectors prioritized: oil, renewable energy, or tourism. 

They also have to get approval from Cuba, of course, whose foreign investment laws don’t just accept any project. According to Déborah Rivas, the director general for foreign investment at Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment (MINCEX), “It’s about attracting foreign investors whose projects are in tune with our public policy.”

Cleber’s proposed tractor facility and the negotiations around its establishment are just one aspect of the much bigger efforts underway to end the blockade. In September 2015, President Obama reauthorized the Trading with the Enemy Act so he could retain jurisdiction over Congress and take steps to weaken the blockade. 

Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution gives the President the power to recommend changes to Congress, and thus exercise some authority to dismantle the blockade. The Departments of Treasury and Commerce, which are overseeing projects like the Cleber tractor plant, are part of the executive branch, and thus under Obama’s direction. They are tasked with carrying out the terms negotiated through any bilateral agreement with Cuba.

It’s important to remember, however, that although the approval of licenses like Cleber’s are important steps, it is still the case that Obama’s power to change economic policy toward Cuba is limited. The laws that make up the blockade prevent him from allowing U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba for the purpose of tourism, for instance. He also cannot permit subsidiaries of U.S. companies in third countries to do business with Cuba; nor can he lift the prohibition on commercial relations with former U.S. properties which were nationalized during the Cuban Revolution. And finally, he has no power to end the requirement that American agricultural products sold to Cuba be purchased in cash, in advance.

The ultimate decision to fully normalize relations, of course, rests with the U.S. Congress. The imposition of an economic, commercial, and financial blockade against Cuba in peacetime remains an extralegal act that has no useful purpose in a global economy. Business requires two-way trade in order to benefit people on either end in the marketplace, and so far only Obama and the Cubans seem willing to do their part. 

Next week, Americans opposed to the blockade will be in Washington demanding that Congress step up to the plate. From April 18 to 22, a series of events including educational forums, film showings, and Congressional lobbying will take place as part of the “Days of Action Against the Blockade.”

It is only a matter of time before ever-wider sections of the U.S. public demand their legal right to travel and trade with Cuba on an equal par with the rest of the world. The pressure on Congress will only increase.

The small Cleber tractors that will soon be tilling Cuban fields are hopefully the first of many more joint-venture products to come. As Berenthal told the press, “There’s no reason trade cannot be re-established…the product exists, the facilities exist, and there are people willing to invest.”

The Oggún, designed in Alabama and assembled in Mariel, is just a first sample of what’s possible through greater U.S.-Cuba cooperation. It’s time for Congress to get out of the way.

Photo: The Cuban Handshake


Richard Grassl
Richard Grassl

Richard Grassl is a member of the Carpenters union in Washington state.

C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.