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Can Cuban Charcoal Turn Up The Heat On U.S.-Cuba Relations?


To Cuba now, where a weed runs rampant across the country, spoiling millions of acres of what could be productive agricultural land. Some people, though, have found a way to turn the weed into wealth. And those people include an American lawyer, who thinks the invasive plant can sprout some goodwill in Cuba-U.S. relations. NPR's Carrie Kahn brings us the story from Cuba.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The weed is called marabou and grows as tall as a tree, with trunks as thick and heavy as the hardest of woods.

ALEXI RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Alexi Ramirez harvests the marabou trunks behind his one-room house next to the railroad tracks outside the city of San Antonio de los Banos, about an hour south of Havana. He says it's one tough plant to cut down.

RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I use gloves and a machete and a big axe," says Ramirez as he shows me several scars on his legs from too many missed whacks. After chopping it down, Ramirez says he burns the marabou slowly for days in this big pit he shuffles through, now cool and filled with ash. The charred wood is cut into chunks, bagged and ready for sale. Ramirez and other small farmers have found a use for this weed that's been a scourge on Cuba for decades.

MARIO DORTA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "You can't get rid of it," says Mario Dorta, the commercial director at the joint U.K.-Cuban company Havana Energy. He says machines can plow it under, but it grows back unless a crop is put in its place. In the 1990s, during Cuba's so-called special period when it lost its subsidies after the fall of the Soviet Union, much of the island's agricultural land went foul. Marabou took off. It's estimated as much as 5 million acres of Cuba's arable land is now covered in a thick, thorny weed.

DORTA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Dorta says it was Cuba's small farmers who figured out the hard marabou trunks burn strong and long. He says it's great for everything from backyard barbecuing - he just roasted a whole pig on the slow-burning charcoal - to energy production. Havana Energy is building a new plant on the island to generate electricity from burning marabou.

But just as Cuban entrepreneurs found value in the noxious weed, so did an American lawyer, not just economically but politically too. His name is Scott Gilbert. He's the same attorney who represented Alan Gross, a former USAID contractor who spent five years in a Cuban jail on espionage charges. After Gross's release in 2014, just as President Obama made his historic opening with the Castro regime, Gilbert began working his new high-level Cuban contacts.

JAMES WILLIAMS: He was able to put the pieces together.

KAHN: James Williams heads Engage Cuba, a group that advocates to end the U.S. embargo. Under U.S. law, the only product that could be exported to the U.S. had to be sold by private businesses, not the state. Williams says marabou charcoal not manufactured on a large scale, only by small farmers and private co-ops, fit the bill.

WILLIAMS: This just happened to be one of those sweet spots where it's an interesting product. There's a demand for it in the United States. You know, it's actually something to keep looking to get rid of. And so it really created sort of a, you know, a natural connection on both sides.

KAHN: Gilbert declined NPR's request for an interview. The commercial environment between the U.S. and Cuba is in flux now, at least for the next few months after President Trump's recent reversal of some of Obama's trade and tourism exemptions. Details of the new regulations are being drafted now, but observers believe marabou charcoal exports will probably remain intact. The first shipment made it to Florida in January. Cuban charcoal is now being sold in the U.S. online. The price - 42.95 for a 33-pound bag. And so far, the reviews are pretty good. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, San Antonio de Los Banos, Cuba. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
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