On July 20, 2015, the Cuban embassy in Washington D.C. reopened for the first time in 54 years, signaling a thaw in icy relations between the island nation of 11.3 million people and its superpower neighbor to the north.
For many, the severed diplomatic ties between the two countries seemed a relic of the Cold War, an anachronism from the days when the U.S. government actively sought regime change in the communist country on the basis of political ideology and belief in the oppression of the Cuban people by first Fidel and then Raul Castro, leaders of the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
As a result, the distance between the United States and Cuba spans 90 miles of dangerous water and an ocean of bad blood. It’s up to Miguel Fraga, first secretary of the Republic of Cuba, to navigate the diplomatic currents.
Beginning in February, Fraga embarked on an ambitious tour of the United States to push for the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, which cannot be realized without the end of the embargo. Called the ‘bloqueo’ in Cuba, the embargo prohibits most trade and travel between the two neighbors but also penalizes foreign businesses from investing in or trading with Cuba by restricting access to U.S. markets.
Recent surveys suggest that the majority of Americans are receptive to his message — 66 percent of those polled by the Pew Research Center in Jan. 2015 supported the end of the embargo despite the fact that roughly the same percentage believed that the island nation wouldn’t change its politics as a result.
Fraga sat down with Real Change to make his case for normalization and give readers a window into his home.
Most readers won’t know what the first secretary of the Embassy of the Republic of Cuba does. Can you tell us about yourself?
It’s only a title. What I do, and what all of my colleagues do every day, is work hard to prove what everybody knows: that Cuba and the U.S. can have normal relations. So we are trying to see what are the real opportunities in all the fields: economic, academic, sports. So we’re trying to help to have all of these opportunities between our two countries.
You’ve stated in the past that diplomatic ties have been restored, but relations have not been normalized [between Cuba and the United States]. Has there been progress?
We always say that we have diplomatic relations again … but we don’t have normal relations because the embargo is there. We are under a sanction regime imposed by several U.S. laws that prohibit normal relations between Cuba and the U.S. We also have Guantanamo Bay, which is part of our territory and we want that territory back. ... I like to say that our first step is there.
What are some misconceptions that Americans have about your country?
Every time I have the opportunity, I always say, “What do you know about Cuba?” And you know what, people say, “You have rum, you have cigars, you have beautiful beaches.”
I had one student who told me, “I remember ‘I Love Lucy.’” I say, “Wow, you’ve missed the last 50 years.”
And that is the problem: people don’t know what is the real situation in Cuba. ... I try to explain that, for example, we have life expectancy of 79 years. We have an infant mortality of 4 children per 1,000 births. Almost 100 percent of our population knows how to write and read and goes to school and can have all this education for free. We are number 44 in the Human Development Index from the United Nations out of 180 countries [Real Change note: According to the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Reports, Cuba ranks 67th out of 188 countries in the 2015 Human Development Index (HDI), although it ranked 44 in the 2014 HDI]. We are very famous in sports and some biotech products, for example. People here don’t know that. I like to say Cuba is beyond the headlines.
There are several pieces of legislation in Washington D.C. right now regarding the embargo, but they’re in their initial stages. What will it take to move those forward?
The best bill we have right now is S. 299, The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act. That’s by Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, and all he wants is for Americans to have the freedom to travel to Cuba. This is not a concession to Cuba. This is about your freedom.
What does that timing look like, given that it’s an election year?
We are ready to talk about all of the problems, all of the differences. We are ready to work together. But we know that in the electoral year, we do not know what is going to happen.
We need Congress because the next administration can change everything.
At what point in the process of opening your country to change does it become a violation of Cuba’s principles?
We are ready to talk about everything, but if we’re going to change something in Cuba, it is the decision of the majority of the people in Cuba. That is the line.
What is your response to people who support the embargo for human rights reasons?
I believe that is a double standard. You cannot say we have a real situation with human rights in Cuba, and if you’re going to cut the relations with all the countries with human rights … I always say you have real dictatorships in Latin America, for example Pinochet in Chile and Somoza in Nicaragua and you never say put an embargo, you never say to your citizens you are not free to go to Nicaragua and Chile.
Now it’s the human rights, before it was that we are a communist island but you have relations with communist countries. So what is the real situation? …
We are ready for this moment. And that is our commitment every day, to try to work for this and do everything in our hands to have this moment. And that is what we are doing, here in Seattle and all the places possible.