In the face of headwinds from the White House, Cuba’s embassy in the U.S. is trying to build support from the ground up for an improvement in ties between its country and the U.S.
The embassy’s first secretary, Miguel Fraga, is on a three-day visit to the Triangle meeting with senior administrators at both N.C. Central University and UNC-Chapel Hill. He’s also making a number of public appearances; the first came Wednesday at Duke University.
“As an embassy, you’re in the middle; you try to connect people on both sides,” Fraga said when asked about the purpose of his trip. “The idea is to see what opportunities there are for interchange.”
Fraga’s visit comes as his government seeks an end to the U.S. government’s five-decade embargo on trade with Cuba, and on its parallel restriction on travel by U.S. citizens to the island nation.
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It also comes a week after President Donald Trump’s administration instituted new restrictions on business and travel that were intended to partially roll back the diplomatic and economic opening to Cuba that occurred under President Barack Obama.
Both the embargo and travel restrictions are legacies of Cuba’s Cold War-era turn to communism under Fidel Castro. They remain even though the U.S. has established firm ties to other still-communist countries. Trump was visiting China when his administration rolled out the new regulations last week, and from there went to Vietnam.
Fraga didn’t let the discrepancy pass, telling his Duke audience that communism is obviously not a barrier to good relations with the U.S.
“The problem between Cuba and the United States is something that is not difficult to solve if we are able to sit down and work together,” he said, skipping over the fact he was speaking at a university that has a branch campus in China.
He noted that the trade embargo receives almost no support from the rest of the world’s governments, judging from an early November vote in the United Nations’ General Assembly that saw 191 countries vote for a resolution calling for the embargo’s end. The only U.N. member to join the U.S. in opposing the resolution was Israel. The rest, including Canada, Mexico and all this country’s NATO and Asian allies, voted for it.
An irritant to allies
A former U.S. diplomat who’s now a Duke lecturer, Patrick Duddy, moderated Wednesday’s event at Duke and said the continued conflict between the U.S. and Cuba is an irritant to this country’s friends.
“Many of our Latin-American neighbors in particular over the decades got very tired of having to negotiate around what they saw as a very problematical relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, given that many of these same countries wished to have positive and constructive relationships with both of our governments,” said Duddy, who was the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela under Obama and former President George W. Bush.
Both the embargo and travel restrictions are embedded in federal statute, meaning Congress would ultimately have to remove them. Fraga noted that a bill in the U.S. Senate would override the travel restrictions and limit the president’s authority on them to cases where national security or the health and safety of Americans is on the line.
Introduced by U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, the bill has 54 co-sponsors. Most are Democrats, and despite having majority support the bill hasn’t moved.
“Nothing happened,” Fraga said. “Hmmm. We need to talk about that.”
We don’t believe in the idea that multi-party is a democracy.
When Duddy opened the floor for questions, Fraga was soon asked whether the Cuban government would be willing to allow more political competition, specifically the formation of other parties to vie for power with the Communist one. The answer was a clear no.
“We don’t believe in the idea that multi-party is a democracy,” he said. “We had that in Cuba before 1959 and it was a failure. We had different dictators, different coup d’tats.”
The diplomat’s remaining itinerary included a Thursday meeting with N.C. Central University Chancellor Johnson Akinleye, and a Friday meeting with UNC-CH Executive Vice Provost Ron Strauss and other administrators there.
Fraga said he’s hoping to sound out the universities on possible academic exchanges.
“We need and want to see more students from the U.S. going to Cuba and we need to know how we can do that,” he said, adding that ties can sometimes depend on securing the cooperation of a single professor. “In Cuba, we need to find universities able to work with the universities here.”