Cuban diplomat: Normal relations involve more than just two embassies
Cubans carry cartoon depictions of U.S. President Donald Trump building a wall around liberty during the annual May Day parade held in Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba, May 1, 2019. | Ramon Espinosa / AP

WASHINGTON—Normal relations between the U.S. and Cuba must consist of a lot more than just having embassies in each other’s capital cities, a top Cuban diplomat in the U.S. says.

First and foremost, declares Miguel Fraga, the U.S. must end its 58-year “blockade” of the 11-million-person nation. The blockade, he states, “is the main obstacle to our development.” It also hurts the Cuban people and violates their human rights, he told the Institute for Policy Studies on Nov. 7.

Fraga spoke the day after the United Nations General Assembly voted, again, to demand the U.S. end the blockade, which the U.S. calls “an embargo,” of Cuba. The vote was 187-3, with two abstentions. The three foes were the U.S., and the right-wing governments of Israel and, this year, Brazil. Fraga says Brazil’s people don’t agree.

Opinion polls show the blockade also now draws strong opposition in the U.S. as well as Cuba. That includes polls in the supposed heartland of Cuban exiles, Florida. There, there’s overwhelming support for the position that the blockade “hasn’t worked at all” (57%) or “not worked very well” (26%).

The holdouts? Emigres who fled to the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area after the Cuban Communist Party, led by Fidel Castro, won the 1959 revolution. And even those emigres’ numbers are diminishing, Fraga said, as is their electoral clout.

And, of course, the GOP Trump administration. Trump caters to the anti-CCP Cubans, seeing them as a top bloc for the 2020 election in a key swing state.

Fraga offered those observations in an hour and a half talk and q-and-a on the current state of U.S.-Cuban relations. C-SPAN taped and will air his entire talk. Check its schedule on the web.

As First Secretary of the Cuban Embassy in the U.S. – and before that, when it was just the Cuban “Interests Section” – Fraga’s taken those same arguments nationwide.

And they’ve had an impact, even in unexpected places. As one attendee put it later, “If the Alabama Legislature can pass a resolution calling for the blockade to be lifted, anybody can do it.” Fraga had testified and lobbied there for that resolution.

Fraga, 40, who is nearing the end of his 4-year diplomatic assignment in the U.S., spent much of his time, as he has done on 46 college campuses, debunking myths about Cuba and bringing listeners current facts while dispelling old impressions.

Much of that misinformation came from and continues to come from anti-Revolution Cubans, various stereotypes and/or U.S. administrations, through the mainstream media. Just as one example, Fraga said, “Netflix is about to run a series saying” a delegation from the U.S. “is kidnapped by guerrillas in Cuba.”

“We don’t have any guerrillas.”

Cuba also has “a private sector” now, accounting for more than 10% of the nation’s workforce, he noted. And while Cubans remain staunchly anti-capitalistic, they’re also flexible when it comes to language.

“Are we abandoning socialism? No,” he replied to the first question after his talk. The person asking cited various media reports.

“The majority of our people support a society based on social justice and equal opportunity for all. They just don’t believe capitalism” makes it possible. “This is about opportunities for everyone…The majority of the world” – Cuba and the U.S. included – “sees capitalism working only for the 1%.”

Despite myths and misconceptions, “We cannot change the past, but we can work for a better future,” Fraga told the sympathetic crowd, many of whom traveled to Cuba before Trump slammed on the brakes.

A better future will require more than just exchanging diplomats. In one example, Fraga reminded the group that earlier in the Trump administration, when a mysterious illness felled U.S. diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Trump retaliated by loudly floating unproven reasons for the ailment – and, later, by expelling 60% of Cuban diplomats in the U.S. But when U.S. diplomats sickened in China, Trump was silent, Fraga noted.

By contrast, when a Cuban diplomat serving in the U.S. was murdered in 1980, the Cuban government refrained from retaliating.

The blockade accompanied the U.S. cutoff of diplomatic relations just days before JFK took office, Fraga noted. It has continued – with some exceptions, such as fighting counterterrorism and working against the spread of the Ebola virus in Africa – ever since.

The U.S. provided the funds and built the facilities for treating Africans and stopping the epidemic from spreading, Fraga noted. Cuba, with extensive and free medical training, sent the doctors.

It affects not just U.S. exporters, who want to enter the Cuban market with food and other goods, but also foreign firms, who fear being banned from U.S. business if they trade with Cuba.

It also affects Cubans in the U.S., who looked forward, especially after Democratic President Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations, to more contact with their ancestral country.

Indeed, Trump’s backtracking on Obama’s abortive initiative is one reason, Fraga believes, that South Floridian Cubans will look askance at the president politically next fall. “The Cuban issue is not what it was before,” he comments.

“And I don’t see very many Cubans voting next year for a president who won’t let them send money” to their relatives “or to fly to Santiago and Santa Clara,” he said. Trump’s new restrictions include banning flights from the U.S. mainland to all airports except Havana.

Besides ending the blockade and restoring full diplomatic relations, Fraga also said the U.S. should end its occupation of the Guantanamo Bay base, “which is twice the size of the island of Manhattan.” The U.S., under treaties in 1903 and 1930, pays only $4,085 yearly in rent. Cuba, on the same principle that the base is illegally occupied, has not cashed the checks for years.

Further, the U.S. should drop its effort, under 30-plus-year-old legislation pushed by then-Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. – a notorious racist, though Fraga politely did not say so – to allow people and firms whose assets were nationalized by the revolution to sue for their value, plus inflation, plus damages. Other nations, he noted, have successfully negotiated such claims.

And the U.S., Fraga stated, should cease its multimillion dollar efforts to replace the current Cuban government. They include spending $364 million for “Cuban democracy funding” from 1996-2018 and another $900 million from 1994-2018 for Radio and TV Marti, which broadcasts into Cuba.

It’s not only expensive, Fraga noted, but it’s also ineffective. “Only 11% of our people” get the transmissions. “It’s a waste of your taxpayers’ money,” he said. “And it’s an insult” to name the radio and TV system after Jose Marti, the leader of Cuban liberation from Spain in 1898.

Fraga admitted that “Cuba is not perfect,” and particularly that it must import 70%-80% of its food. It also was hit hard by shortages when the Soviet Union, its main supplier and market, collapsed in 1991.  And what food it imports can be expensive due to high transportation costs. After all, Fraga noted, some food that could easily come from the U.S. – “It’s only a 32-hour sea voyage from Mobile (Alabama) to Havana” – comes from afar.

Miguel Fraga, first secretary at the Embassy of the Republic of Cuba. | Casey Toth / The Herald-Sun via AP

“But every (U.S.) farmer wants to sell to Cuba,” he says.

And Cuba shares a farm “people problem” with the U.S., though Fraga did not say so. He made the point that Cuban farmers’ children, like himself, using the island’s free university education “to become doctors and lawyers” and do not return to the land. So there’s a labor shortage in Cuban fields, Fraga, who has a law degree, noted. U.S. farmers also face a brain drain by their kids, fleeing rural areas.

But the key theme of his talk was to end the blockade, not intensify it, as Trump has. The blockade even, Fraga says, affects baseball, which is a national sport in Cuba.

After former President Barack Obama re-established full diplomatic relations, the Cuban government and the major leagues negotiated an agreement to end human smuggling and trafficking which allowed Cuban players, often paying high fees and enduring hazards, to enter the U.S. Trump ordered MLB to junk that pact. Fraga deplored Trump’s move, but then predicted there will be agreements between Cuba and the Little Leagues soon.

“And you’ll see Cuban teams at the (Little League) World Series in Williamsport, Pa.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.