As unlikely as it may seem, Minnesota is a hotbed for organizations and people interested in improving relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tom Emmer, for example, sponsored multiple bills to end the decades-long U.S. economic embargo against the socialist island nation. Minnesota’s agricultural sector strongly backs the measures and stands to make an additional $47 million to $190 million per year in corn, soybean and dairy exports through increased trade with Cuba, according to a 2017 study from the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba.
Rep. Betty McCollum, meanwhile, has authored legislation to end all federal funding to Radio Martî, a state-funded outlet in Miami that transmits anti-Castro propaganda to Cuba and costs taxpayers roughly $15 million a year.
The Minnesota Orchestra toured Cuba in 2015. Even Jesse Ventura, as Minnesota governor, once traveled to Cuba on a trade mission and chatted with Fidel Castro about JFK conspiracy theories.
Miguel Fraga, the first secretary of the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., came to Minnesota over the weekend to give a series of talks on developing relations between the countries. Over the weekend, Fraga attended a national conference at Augsburg University for U.S. advocacy groups aligned with Cuba’s communist government. He also has public events lined up for Monday and Tuesday at Dorsey & Whitney law firm, the University of Minnesota, the University of St. Thomas and Macalester College.
Fraga sat down with MinnPost to discuss the complicated history and present between both countries. After a 2015 breakthrough that re-established diplomatic relations between both countries for the first time in more than 50 years, things took a turn when President Donald Trump last year announced that he would “cancel” the deal made by former presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro. Things got worse when 19 diplomats from the U.S. embassy in Havana reported experiencing strange illnesses in late 2016 with symptoms of headaches, hearing loss and loss of balance. The illnesses have been investigated but not officially explained, while some have linked them to mysterious “microwave attacks” using sound waves (the Cuban government denies any wrongdoing).
Despite this, Fraga is undeterred about a positive future in which the two countries are friends. “We proved with President Obama that we are not afraid of having relations with the United States,” he said. “We only want goodwill and respect.”
The interview has been edited and condensed.
MinnPost: What will you be doing in Minnesota for the next few days?
Miguel Fraga: In the United States there is a solidarity movement with Cuba that has been working for many years to improve the relations between both countries, and the national conference for that movement [was] here this weekend. So we are here to be a part of that, and to say thanks to the friends that we have here. And recently, the Minneapolis City Council approved a resolution to end the embargo and support relations between both countries. I’m going to have a meeting with the mayor to say thank you. I’m going to have a meeting with the Farm Bureau. I’m going to do presentations at three universities. I really believe that there is a lot of misinformation about my country,
MP: In 2016, you said we were in the best moment between Cuba and U.S. relations in the last 50 years. Does that still apply today after President Trump turned around some of policies Obama was establishing?
MF: No. We cannot say anymore that we are in best moment, that’s true. But at the same time, we can say we see real support for better relations. The resolution I mentioned in Minneapolis — you can see examples of the same resolution in Helena, Montana, in Sacramento, in Hartford. Those are symbolic, but we’re talking about people traveling to Cuba and universities and businesses that want us to have more opportunities. We’re not in the worst moment. We still have diplomatic relations. We still have opportunities and interests from both sides. The door is open on our side. We’re still working for a better future.
MP: What opportunities do you see for agricultural interests in states like Minnesota?
MF: Cuba buys $2 billion worth of food each year from all over the world. We import 70 to 80 percent of the food that we need. Unfortunately, because the embargo is still in place, it’s a major obstacle for diplomatic relations. But the farmers here in Minnesota want to sell products to Cuba and we want to buy those products. We put more money in their pockets if we put more food on our table. It’s a win-win relationship.
MP: You just met with the Minnesota Twins organization and talked with [fellow Cuban and baseball legend] Tony Oliva. What did you talk about?
MF: I am a huge baseball fan. In Cuba people love baseball; it is our national sport. If you go to Cuba and say you are from Minnesota, people are going to ask about the Twins. They respect people like Joe Mauer. I was able to meet Tony and he was very nice. It was amazing, and he told me something that is real. He supports the relations between both countries. And he said, “You don’t know how much I suffer, because I was not able to return to my country.” And that is a reality right now. I was a student in the Havana University when St. Thomas sent a team there. That was in late ’90s. I never imagined to be here. I never imagined going to the university to talk about relations. Don’t ask me what happened with the ballgame, because we lost. I don’t want to talk about that.
MP: You mentioned misconceptions in U.S. media coverage of Cuba, and the common criticisms we hear or read about is how Cuba is a one-party dictatorship, how it doesn’t allow freedom of the press or freedom of assembly.
MF: I say go to Cuba. How many of those people [making those criticisms] have been in Cuba? But bottom line, why only with Cuba? If it’s about communists, you have relations with communist countries. If it’s about one party, you have relations with countries that don’t allow political parties. You say that this is about human rights, but the United States never put an embargo against Pinochet in Chile, against Somoza in Nicaragua, against Batista in Cuba, who killed 20,000 Cubans in seven years. I always use the example of Vietnam. You lost 58,000 soldiers in Vietnam, and you established diplomatic relations. And they’re communist, by the way. So why not with Cuba?
MP: What do you have to say about the reports of mysterious illnesses from diplomats in the U.S. embassy in Havana?
MF: Since the beginning, this has been very difficult. In more than 50 years, nothing happened to your diplomats in Cuba. We had a Cuban diplomat who was shot and killed here in the United States in 1980, Felix Garcia-Rodriguez, in New York. So why now in November, 2016? We invited the FBI for the first time in 60 years to go to Cuba to investigate, and they have not been able to say, “OK, this is what happened.” We aren’t saying that nothing happened. We have a lot of respect for the US diplomats — they are colleagues for me. There is another diplomat in another country that has suffered something similar, according to the media. So why is the focus only on Cuba? We don’t know what happened. But we really believe that people are using this to put more obstacles in the relations between Cuba and the United States. Cuba is open to work with the United States to find out what really happened to the diplomats in Cuba.