First U.S. Factory OK'd For Cuba Aims To Plow A Path Into 21st Century : Parallels Two businessmen — one of whom was born in Cuba — have been granted permission to build the first U.S. factory on the island nation since 1960. They plan to produce small tractors for Cuban farmers.

First U.S. Factory OK'd For Cuba Aims To Plow A Path Into 21st Century

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President Obama will make a historic visit to Cuba next month, the first by a sitting president in nearly 90 years. And we're about to meet two U.S. businessmen who hope that the president might take a seat on their prototype tractor while he's in Havana. The Obama administration has just granted their company approval to build the first U.S. factory in Cuba since the 1960 embargo. They spoke to NPR's Melissa Block.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: They are Saul Berenthal of North Carolina...


BLOCK: ...And Horace Clemmons of Alabama.

HORACE CLEMMONS: Hello, Saul (laughter).

BLOCK: They've been business partners for decades, first at IBM. Then they started their own software companies. Now they're in their 70s.

BERENTHAL: I'd probably retire, but Saul keeps poking me to, let's go do this, and let's go do that.

BLOCK: And now that is building tractors in Cuba. The farming knowledge comes from Clemmons.

CLEMMONS: My grandfather farmed 40 acres with two mules and eight kids, and I often say the kids did more work than the mules.

BLOCK: (Laughter).

CLEMMONS: I drug an eight-foot cotton sack down the row, picking cotton by hand. I have walked behind mules to farm.

BLOCK: The inside knowledge of Cuba - that comes from Berenthal. He was born there. He was 16 when he and his family left the island.

BERENTHAL: Came over to the U.S. after the revolution, learned to be a capitalist and made the American dream.

BLOCK: So when Berenthal and Clemmons heard that as part of normalizing relations with Cuba, the U.S. was loosening some trade restrictions on agriculture, they saw their opportunity. After all, Cuba needs food. It has to import more than 70 percent of what it consumes, and most of the small-scale fieldwork that is done...

CLEMMONS: It's manual and livestock. It's a rake-and-pick, shovel-and-hoe, or it's livestock.

BLOCK: Enter the Cleber Company Tractor. They've given it a name any Cuban will recognize.


BLOCK: That's the name of a deity in the Santeria religion - Oggun, the god of metal. It's a small, red single-row tractor like a jacked-up go-kart. And if it looks really old-school, that's because it is. It's based on the old Allis-Chalmers Model G tractor which was revolutionary when it was introduced in the 1940s.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Model G is completely new, new in concept, new in design.

BERENTHAL: I'll tell you a little story.

BLOCK: Saul Berenthal recounts the skepticism they heard about their plan to bring a 60-year-old designed to Cuba.

BERENTHAL: You think people in Cuba are going to fall for this old American trick of bringing an old technology here and selling it and making money on it?

BLOCK: Here's how they answer that. They've updated the engineering, put new technology in that old frame. The tractor will be easy to assemble and, with an open-source manufacturing model, easy to fix.

BERENTHAL: In the environment that countries like Cuba have to operate, it is not how jazzy does it look, and it is not how many bells and whistles does it have or whether it has air-conditioning. No, what they need there is low cost of operation and self-servicing.

BLOCK: The partners will invest about $5 million to get their factory into production, they hope, toward the beginning of next year. They expect to build maybe a hundred tractors a year to start and ramp up to a thousand not just for Cuba but also for export to Latin America. The price per tractor...

BERENTHAL: Less than 10,000, as close as possible to eight.

BLOCK: And there's one big hurdle right there. Where does a small farmer in Cuba come up with eight or 10 grand? Clemmons and Berenthal expect that Cuban relatives overseas will chip in. The Cuban government may help with loans. There are still lots of unknowns, but the partners keep in mind something they heard at a tradeshow in Havana from a Cuban man who climbed up onto their tractor.

BERENTHAL: He said said you guys are doing something for the forgotten people of Cuba.

CLEMMONS: Saul and I have both used that phrase numerous times, and we told him then, if you don't mind, that's the way we will explain what we're doing.

BERENTHAL: We got copyrights to this statement, yes.

BLOCK: (Laughter) As for worry that the next U.S. president could undo the Obama administration's moves and reverse normalization to Cuba, Berenthal and Clemmons shrug it off. They tell me, we don't let fear get in the way of what is possible. Melissa Block, NPR News.

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