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"Contractors from the USA Explore Trade with Cuba," read a Dec. 12 headline in Granma, the official daily newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party. The article explained that, despite the tough U.S. embargo, 25 North Carolinians were in Havana for a week-long trade mission organized by the N.C. Department of Agriculture.

The delegation, which included tobacco and vegetable farmers, agriculture officials and state Sen. Allen Wellons of Johnston, is one more sign that the consensus behind the embargo is beginning to crack. Earlier this year, Congress passed legislation allowing Cuba to buy some U.S. foodstuffs--but conditions barring reciprocal trade have been rejected by the Castro government, so there's still no genuine opening.

Still, both sides are laying the groundwork for commerce in the future. "We are fighting for every market that is legal, and soon Cuba will be," says Charles Hall, an international trade specialist at the Department of Agriculture who made the trip. Cuban officials from the foreign affairs ministry, trade ministry and tourism industry stressed that opportunities await. "They're really looking forward to the day Americans can trade with and travel to Cuba, and they're preparing for that," Hall reports.

While the official hosts, as well as people on the street, were cordial to the Carolina contingent, Hall remembers one prickly moment in a sandwich shop. He struck up a conversation with a group of young Cubans and they chatted amicably for a while--until he mentioned his home state, which most Cubans know as the home of U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, co-sponsor of legislation that tightened the embargo in 1996.

"When I told them I was from North Carolina, the girl I was speaking to said 'Excuse me' and turned around and sat there for five minutes with her back to me. When she turned back toward me, she said kind of icily, 'What are you doing here?'" Hall explained the trade mission and things warmed up again.

Was it Helms that had raised the girl's ire? Staying diplomatic about the matter, Hall will only say this: "You know what it is, I'm sure--North Carolina elicits a negative feeling in a lot of Cubans."

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