U.S.-Cuba normalization presents a chance to greatly benefit both countries.
The pin on Miguel Fraga’s lapel has two flags, the United States and Cuban banners joined, both red, white and blue. The two nations are neighbors with a long, troubled history and now a chance to build a future that is beneficial to both.
Fraga is first secretary in the Embassy of Cuba in Washington, D.C., and he’s been traveling the country telling people Cuba is eager for a relationship in which both countries and their people win.
He spent the past five days in Seattle going to meetings, making speeches and touting the change made possible because President Obama is taking the first steps toward normalizing relations with Cuba.
I spoke with Fraga on Wednesday evening before a reception. He said he and other embassy officials are “Working hard to prove what everybody knows — that Cuba and the United States can have normal relations.” And he said there is more to Cuba than Fidel, good rum and cigars.
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By some estimates, U.S. businesses are missing out on more than $1 billion in sales because of a Cold War-era trade embargo. And better relations matter in other ways, too.
The countries are already cooperating on international issues. Fraga said Cuba sent 400 health-care workers to Africa to fight the 2014 Ebola outbreak, and the U.S. provided the facilities they used. He sees an opportunity to work together in the same way in Haiti.
The U.S. treatment of Cuba has been a drag on our relationships with other Latin American countries, which have understandable concerns about the way the U.S. treats its less-powerful neighbors.
But at least now the two nations have diplomatic relations again and are talking directly to each other. The Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., reopened last July and the U.S. reopened its embassy in Havana last August. Later this month, President Obama will become the first sitting president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge went in 1928.
And the loosening of restrictions means more interactions among people of the two countries because it will be easier for U.S. citizens to visit the island. Last week, Seattle-based Alaska Airlines joined seven other U.S. carriers in applying to fly between Cuba and the U.S. as a result of an agreement between the countries to restart scheduled flights.
Fraga cited polls that show a majority of U.S. citizens support normal relations with Cuba, and he said that in his travels, “I have been able to see that support.” Several groups in this area have been working for better relations between the two nations. The Seattle/Cuba Friendship Committee and the U.S. Women and Cuba Collaboration were among the sponsors of the reception Wednesday. The National Lawyers Guild Seattle Chapter invited Fraga to visit.
That popular support will be politically necessary to move forward because presidential actions can go only so far. Only Congress can remove the collection of laws that constitute the embargo. But even there, Fraga sees some positive signs, such as the support of 47 senators for freer travel to Cuba.
Some barriers won’t be taken down easily — human-rights issues in Cuba, the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo.
But finally, after more than 50 years of counterproductive estrangement, there is a long-overdue thaw. A lot has changed since Cuba became a board piece in the Cold War.
There’s no more Soviet Union. The two Germanys reunited in 1990.
Just last week, another U.S. astronaut rode back to Earth from the International Space Station in a Russian space capsule. The phone in your pocket was probably made in China. American tourists flock to Vietnam, and might even enjoy a game of dominoes there.
At a reception for Fraga last week, former King County Executive Ron Sims said that sometimes people don’t notice when major history is being made. We can’t easily see what will change the future. But this feels like a new direction that could dramatically change Cuba, benefit the U.S. and improve U.S. relations with its other neighbors as well.
Like Fraga, I believe both our peoples will be better off as the two governments settle their differences.