Castro gives rice leaders lesson on energy, food

When you're about to meet with Fidel Castro, a lot flashes through your mind: pictures of missile-bearing Russian ships en route to Cuba; film clips of speeches in Havana; photos of Castro visiting the UN.

But none of those images prepared USA Rice Federation leaders for what they encountered during a five-and-a-half-hour meeting with the 79-year-old Cuban president Aug. 25-26. (The meeting ended at 2 a.m.)

Shortly after greeting the delegation, Castro had aides bring in two small, crock-pot-like rice cookers that have become popular with housewives and a large, restaurant-sized cooker.

For the next 90 minutes, he patiently explained how much energy each electrical appliance used down to a tenth of a kilowatt and how much money they cost to operate compared to traditional means of preparing rice in Cuba. He even discussed the shapes of the bottoms of the appliances.

The Cuban government, he said through an interpreter, has purchased 2 million of the small cookers for distribution to Cuban families, many of whom heat rice with kerosene stoves. It has also bought 8 million energy-saving light bulbs and is replacing bulbs around the country.

Power shortages have been causing major blackouts in Cuba, and high oil prices are forcing the government to shift more resources from food to fuel purchases, he said. “With oil prices at $60 per barrel and beyond, we're forced to spend more on gasoline and less on food.”

After showing more electrical appliances and discussing research on wind and solar power, Castro abruptly switched gears: “This is what we are doing so we can buy more rice from you,” he pointedly told the rice industry leaders.

Lee Adams, the chairman of the USA Rice Federation, told Castro he admired the efforts the Cuban president was making. “I find myself thinking about how much the United States could save if our president was looking at the shape of the bottoms of appliances,” he noted.

USA Rice leaders had become concerned earlier in the day when Cuban officials seemed more than a little annoyed with the new restrictions the U.S. government has placed on payments for food and drug shipments to Cuba. ALIMPORT, Cuba's food agency, must pay for shipments before they leave port.

But, saying he wants to improve Cuban diets, Castro indicated Cuba would buy an additional 100,000 metric tons of paddy rice and 30,000 metric tons of milled rice from the United States. “By December, every Cuban will be receiving another kilogram (2.2 pounds) of rice per month at subsidized prices.”

For another two hours, Castro showed visitors more energy-saving appliances, described the Cuban education system and Cuba's exports of its doctors to Venezuela and other Latin American countries and urged the Americans to improve relations with his friend, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

As the meeting ended, members of the delegation shook hands with Castro again and departed, marveling at what one called the best theater he had seen in years.

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