Luis Rodriguez was a Cuban-American, a vegetable grower, and an activist for fair trade, as opposed to just “free trade,” which is often not free at all.

Vegetable grower fought the fight for free, fair trade
Larry Waterfield


Luis was more than concerned that domestic growers were being sacrificed on the altar of global trade. He wanted to do something about it. He fought back.

Early in his career he had one of the best quotes.

In testifying before a Congressional committee about the ups and downs of growing vegetables in Florida, he said, “I am an American success story. I came to this country with nothing — and now I owe more than $1 million.”

Given all that’s happened to debt-ridden Americans in the past year, Luis was ahead of his time.

His family had grown vegetables in Cuba before the Castro takeover. He maintained a special interest in Cuba and in its potential in agriculture.

He died in April, before the Obama administration’s approaches to Cuba have played out. We do know that Cuba continues to send mixed messages — the Castro regime needs a big enemy to cover its own failings, including the fact that this big tropical island — “The Pearl of the Antilles” — cannot feed itself and its nearly 12 million people.

In the battle for fair trade, Luis found himself fighting powerful interests that wanted developing nations to have open access to American and Canadian markets.

I was once invited by a former U.S. secretary of agriculture to sit in on meetings at the State Department that included representatives of major U.S. business interests: bankers, major manufacturers, food retailers and processors, Midwest grain farmers and handlers.

This was an early meeting leading up to the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The participants were clear about what they wanted. The bankers wanted countries such as Mexico to be able to sell their products into the U.S. and Canada so Mexico could pay back loans.

Manufacturers wanted to be able to make products in Mexico and easily ship them north.

Retailers and food companies wanted to “source” worldwide, including Mexico, which would keep their costs down. Midwest grain farmers wanted to sell corn, wheat and soybeans to Mexico with its corn-based food economy.

There were no voices representing U.S. industries or farmers that might be adversely affected by a trade agreement.

As with all such agreements it was sold as a win-win for everybody, and any opponents were dismissed as folks who didn’t understand the basics of economics and the benefits of comparative advantage through trade. Anyway, the free traders said any “losers” would be compensated and “retrained.”

That’s the trade theory. The reality is another matter. We see that reality every day in places such as China, which agrees to engage in “free trade,” but practices anything but free trade.

A full-page ad in The Washington Post recently detailed China’s trade failings: subsidies, state-owned industries, refusal to honor trademarks and patents, currency manipulation, the dumping of goods at low prices, high barriers and tariffs. The ad doesn’t even mention the failings in food safety and quality control.

Even so, we consider trade with China to be “free trade.”

Rodriguez fought as best he could. He bombarded The Packer with letters about trade policies and trade legislation. He lobbied. He pushed for country-of-origin labeling.

Fair trading is not protectionism. I’ve known old-fashioned protectionists. For 25 years a distant cousin of mine, a Midwest ag economist and former Peace Corps volunteer who traveled around Latin America on his motorcycle a la Che Guevara, lobbied in Washington, D.C., against U.S. farm exports.  He thought they hurt poor countries by undercutting local farmers.

Don, the cousin, fought a losing battle based on his populist and very left-wing views. We argued endlessly, and usually we both gave up and had a good laugh.

He was a purist and promoted protectionism for poor nations. He soldiered on until he died of a heart attack while working on a strawberry farm. He died in the midst of work.

Don dreamed of an ideal world of small family farms, county fairs, thriving little towns with prosperous populations. He didn’t realize that trade — fair trade — was a part of that equation.

Any argument against trade is a hard one to make. The Obama administration, with its strong labor support, indicated it would demand tough worker and environmental standards in trade agreements. It even hinted that NAFTA should be renegotiated, but that seems a dead issue.

The trade riddle remains. Luis couldn’t solve it. My cousin failed. Nations will pay lip service to free trade, but they also ought to protect their core bottom-line interests, including their farms and food supply. The riddle is how to find a balance between two extremes — unfettered trade and protectionism.

Luis tried to keep that debate alive.  He fought the good fight.