RICHMOND, Va. —
Warner settled for dispatching his commerce and trade secretary, who helped commonwealth farmers sell about $800,000 in apples and soybeans to Cuba in 2003 — the first exports from Virginia to Cuba since President John F. Kennedy imposed a trade embargo at the height of the Cold War in 1962.
The job of tending to Virginia-Cuban relations has for the past six years belonged to Haymore, who was agriculture commissioner under then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, D, before Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, R, made him secretary.
Haymore's first few trips began with a lecture from Cuban officials on the history of the embargo, which Cubans perceive as a great injustice. Now he enjoys a warm greeting when he attends the annual trade fair in Havana.
"Instead of shaking hands, you're high-fiving them, hugs," he said. "They want to see the pictures of your families. They want to know, 'How old are your girls now?' "
Virginia growers send their own representatives and brokers to the trade fair to negotiate with Alimport, the Cuban government's food procurement arm. But Cuban government officials expect an American counterpart to be in on the deal at some level — sometimes to help negotiate, sometimes merely to play the role of official-looking "wallflower," Haymore said.
On his second trip, Cuban officials insisted that he sign each page of the contract before an export deal was finalized.
"I'll be honest, it was a little bit intimidating. I wasn't expecting to sign it," Haymore said. But he eventually did so — not as a party to the transaction, but "more as a witness, putting the official Virginia stamp on the deal."
Chiles, like other Virginia farmers, thinks eventually the red tape will fall away, either because of changes in Cuba or in U.S. policy. He's willing to contend with it now to get a foot in the door.
"We know sooner or later that Cuba will open back up again," Chiles said. "It's a market that's close to us. It makes sense for us to export as close to home as we can. . . . You want to make something work, you can usually find a way."