UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Miguel Fraga—the first secretary of the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., since diplomatic relations were reestablished between Cuba and the United States—came to the Penn State School of International Affairs to discuss the current state of U.S.-Cuba relations on Tuesday, and he posed a question to his audience of students and community members.
“What do you know about Cuba?” he asked.
Fraga had asked this question before, and shared some the answers he’d received from other groups: rum, cigars, baseball—and Ricky Ricardo, the Cuban-American husband from “I Love Lucy.”
“Well, Cuba is not just Ricky Ricardo, and that person has missed the last 50 years!” Fraga said, prompting laughter from the crowd.
But Fraga—whose presentation was co-sponsored by SIA, Global Penn State, the Penn State Center for Global Studies, and the Cuban Embassy—was making a larger point about the relationship between Cuba and the United States. Even with restored diplomatic relations between the two nations, the U.S. embargo against Cuba remains in place and many people in America still have not had an opportunity to learn more about the Caribbean nation.
“We have the same colors in our flag and we have been neighbors for all these years; you cannot change that,” Fraga said. “We have shared much history together.”
Unfortunately, Fraga pointed out that not all of that shared history was positive: the American occupation of Cuba in the early 1900s, the tensions and conflicts between the two nations during the Cold War, and the continued presence of the embargo. Fraga even read from a formerly classified document from the Department of State that advised the U.S. government in 1960 to “decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government” in Cuba.
“We have had difficult relations for many years, but that is the past,” Fraga said. “We can change that.”
To that end, Fraga shared how the Cuban government immediately offered to send doctors and humanitarian aid when Florida was struck by Hurricane Katrina—an offer that was not accepted by the U.S. government, having been made before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Fraga also said that Cuba made a similar offer on 9/11, as Cuba was sympathetic to the suffering caused by terrorists (despite being listed by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terrorism until 2015).
Fraga shared a story about a Cuban diplomat named Felix García who was shot and killed on September 11, 1980, when his car was stopped at a traffic light in Queens, New York, which was connected to the actions of an anti-Castro terrorist group.
“I have visited New York City and the sites of terrorism, and know how important it is to you, as we have suffered in the same way,” Fraga said. “We commemorate September 11 for the same reason, for terrorist action, and we know what it is to fight against terrorism. We do not believe in terrorism.”
So, with Cuba removed from the list of state sponsors of terrors and diplomatic relations with the U.S. restored, who is the Cuba today that Americans have the opportunity to get to know?
It is a nation of 11 million people, smaller in landmass than the state of Pennsylvania, and identified by the World Bank as an upper middle income country with a per capita income of $6,789 that ranks 67 out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index. It is a country that loves its sports—and, yes, loves baseball—and is proud of its 220 Olympic medals, 77 of which are gold. It is a country with 100 percent adult literacy, that values education, that develops and promotes new medical procedures and techniques, and trains doctors from more than 100 countries at one of the largest medical schools in the world.
It is, Fraga said, a nation he is deeply proud of, and a nation that he believes can, should, and will continue to forge an improved relationship with the United States. Although he admitted there is always some kind of concern where there is a major change of administration, as just happened in the United States, Fraga remains optimistic.
“Our President Raúl said the day after the election to President-elect Trump, ‘Congraulations.’ We are not closing that door,” Fraga said. “For those who want to build a better future, we can start today.”