By Patrick Reilly and Hanna Pfeiffer
November 17th, 2016
On Friday, November 17, 2016, Miguel Fraga, who has served as first secretary of the Cuban Embassy in Washington, DC since it reopened in July 2015, visited the University of Chicago’s International House to give a presentation on the state of Cuban-American relations. During his talk, Fraga emphasized the importance of establishing goodwill and respect between the two neighboring nations for their mutual benefit. After the presentation, former Gate co-editor-in-chief Patrick Reilly and Global Voices Metcalf Fellow Hanna Pfeiffer sat down with Fraga to discuss US-Cuban relations and Fraga’s experiences as a Cuban diplomat. This interview has also been published in the Gate, the partner student publication of the Global Voices Interview Series.
The Gate/Global Voices: Before you were a Cuban diplomat, you served as a member of the Provincial People’s Power Assembly of Havana. Can you tell us about your election to that assembly and your service in it?
Miguel Fraga: Yes. At that time, I was a student at Havana University. I served as a member of the Provincial Parliament between 2003 and 2008. We have the opportunity to have people from all the sectors in Cuba in the Parliament because we try to have people that are not professional politicians. They have to serve as politicians in the local, provincial, or national parliament, but they remain working or studying in their day-to-day positions, and they do not receive any wage specifically for being a politician. My fellow students selected me as a candidate to be on the ballot, and it was interesting to see that my photo with my biography was in the streets and in my house. In Cuba, everybody has the right to be elected. You don’t need to be a member of the Communist Party, but all of the organizations have the opportunity to present candidates. We are talking about the workers, the students, the farmers, and the women, because we have organizations to represent each group. These organizations each present their candidates for the election, so you appear on the ballot, and you have to win at least 51 percent of the vote. This was what happened with me. I was selected by my Student Federation. I was on the ballot, and I became a member of the provincial parliament in the capital for five years. A wonderful experience.
Gate/Global Voices: You’ve been the first secretary of the Cuban embassy since the United States and Cuba reestablished diplomatic relations in 2015. In the past year, what has been the biggest sign of improvement that you have seen in US-Cuba relations?
Fraga: I really believe that the opportunity to reestablish diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961 was the big news. When I saw the Cuban flag on 16th Street in Washington, I felt like that day was a very important day for all the Cubans who believe that we can have normal relations, and that normal relations are good for both countries. And what we saw after that is that this is what the majority of the Cubans wants, what the majority of the American people wants, and also the majority of the Cuban-Americans. The opportunity to see the direct flights between Cuba and the United States for the first time, and the opportunity to have these business opportunities here in the United States and in Cuba, prove what everybody knows, that we can have normal relations between Cuba and the United States. So there is not a single moment—the moment when my ambassador, José Ramón Cabañas, presented credentials to President Obama, the moment when both presidents sat down and talked about the future, the moment when the president of the United States visited Cuba and said, “OK, we want to see the end of the embargo“—all of these have been very important moments in the history of Cuba-US relations. But in the end, it’s what the majorities of both countries want.
Gate/Global Voices: You have indicated that you believe that a majority of Cuban-Americans support an end to the embargo. But earlier this year, the City of Miami Beach passed a resolution opposing the building of a Cuban consulate in that city. Could you tell us about your interactions with the Cuban-American community in South Florida?
Fraga: What I can say is that you can see in the polls before December 17, 2014 [when Obama announced his intention to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba] and after December 17 that the majority of the Cuban-American community supports good relations between Cuba and the United States. And these are not Cuban polls. They’re American polls, Florida International University polls. And we provide services to the Cuban-American community. Last month, we hosted a meeting of the Cubans who live here in the United States, in Washington, DC. We invited all of the Cubans to go there, and we were talking about what we can do in the future. Unfortunately, for many years, some people tried to use the Cuban community to divide and create problems between Cuba and the United States. I remember that, for many years, people would say, “OK, if you want to win Florida, you cannot say that you are going to improve relations with Cuba.” That is not true anymore. What you see are people who come to the United States and want to come back to Cuba and people who want to help their families in Cuba. What you see right now is, for example, that thirteen thousand Cubans have returned to live in Cuba in the last two years. The Cubans receive a lot of benefits here in the United States. It’s the only immigrant group that comes and is welcomed, according to the Cuban Adjustment Act. If you’re Cuban, you go to your embassy in Cuba, you don’t receive a visa, but you come and you go to the US border and say, “I am a Cuban,” and you are welcome. You are considered a political refugee even when the majority are economic immigrants who come to improve their lives. They want the same things that other people who come to the United States want, to help their families and improve their lives. We have Cubans in all fifty states! That is something interesting. According to your census, we have two million Cuban Americans living in the United States and 1.2 million living in Florida. We have 328 Cubans in Alaska, according to your census. I don’t know what they do, because our weather is very different from Alaska! (laughs) But again, we see people who say, “We are very happy to see this new moment between Cuba and the United States. What we can do to improve this?” People want to travel more, people are very happy with the direct flights, people are very happy for the opportunity for investment in Cuba. So I believe that we are trying to create more opportunities, and it’s a good relationship that we have right now.
Gate/Global Voices: Have you met any Cuban Americans who have changed their minds on the issue of normalized relations?
Fraga: Every time I have the opportunity to go to different places, I have the opportunity to meet with Cubans—first, second, and third generation—and it’s wonderful to see the support of those people. I was recently invited to go to the Cornell Law School to meet with six or seven Cuban Americans, third generation, who go there and they said, “We want to help the Cuban people.” They believe that Cuba needs to change, and we said, “OK, but this is the decision of the Cuban people. If you want to help the Cuban people, we need to see the end of the embargo, we need to see the end of the blockade, because that is something that is hurting our people.” And people realize that this is something important.
Gate/Global Voices: After Hurricane Matthew hit Cuba last month, both Catholic Relief Services and the Archdiocese of Miami reported that they had been denied permission to fly humanitarian supplies into Cuba. Did either of those groups or any other relief agencies reach out to the Cuban Embassy?
Fraga: I’m not aware of that, to be honest. What I know is that we published in our media about the help that we had received, not only from the United States, but from other countries. The United Nations helped Cuba. The United States sent help to Cuba, and we don’t turn away any help. So I don’t know what is the specific issue with this case, I don’t know if this happened. Of course, in some cases, and I’m not saying that this is the case, there are people who are behind these projects who want to change the regime in Cuba. How can you help the people if you are behind projects—for example, the embargo—that are hurting the people? I don’t know if this is the case, but we’ve received help from many countries in the world.
Gate/Global Voices: In your talk at International House, you mentioned a lot of non-political exchanges, like the new Cuban lung cancer vaccine that is undergoing trials here, and a possible new partnership with Major League Baseball. What other programs or binational partnerships are you working on right now that you think hold a lot of promise for both the Cuban and American people?
Fraga: Let me tell you that we already signed like thirteen agreements between both governments, about the environment, cooperation, health, and not only about the vaccine. The problem is, for fifty years, we didn’t sit down and talk. But we have to sit down and talk. We are neighbors. We need to work together, we cannot change that. For example, in law enforcement and narcotics, we are facing the same challenges, so if we work together we have more opportunities to succeed. And this is the will of our government. Cuba has relations with many countries in the world—190 of the world’s 193 countries—and we have differences with some of those countries. We don’t want to only see the differences between us, we want to see the opportunities we can share in order to improve the lives of people on both sides. In the case of Cuba, December 17, 2014 proved that the only thing you need is goodwill. We didn’t have to change anything big, not here in the United States or in Cuba, to announce to the world that we are ready to engage and have normal diplomatic relations. It was only the will of two presidents following the will of the people that they represent. And people are so happy right now.
I don’t know if you’re aware, two days ago, the first lady of the United States delivered an award to a Cuban dancing company. It’s on the White House website. You can see the moment when the first lady gave this award to one dance company from Cuba which is very famous. It was a wonderful moment to show the United States more about the real Cuba. And that is something that is very important. I also mentioned in my presentation that we want more Americans to have the opportunity to travel to Cuba because it’s the only way to see what is the real Cuba, what is happening in Cuba. Now Cuba is more famous, and you can see, for example, the shows on the History Channel, on the Discovery Channel about sharks, do you know that show? They are filming it in Cuba. Fast and Furious 8 was shot in Cuba. Did you know that? Yesterday, Cubans, musicians, won Latin Grammys, and they live in Cuba, and they are proud of living in Cuba. All of this shows opportunities.
And every day we see people in our embassy who want to do projects in Cuba. And we are talking about small projects … The project in Pittsburgh [that I mentioned during the event], this was an amazing idea. One man said, “Why don’t we put a boxing ring in the middle of the Roberto Clemente Bridge?” The bridge that is near the Pittsburgh Pirates’ stadium is named for Roberto Clemente, a famous ballplayer who lost his life in a plane crash. He’s a symbol because he lost his life. He was in Nicaragua helping after an earthquake, and when he was coming back, the plane crashed. This person in Pittsburgh said, “OK, why we don’t put a ring in the middle of the bridge and have a match,” and everybody said, “You are crazy! Cubans are not coming, they are going to the Olympics!” He went to Havana, he presented the proposal, and we said yes, and we sent a team, and asked ourselves, “Why we don’t broadcast this live to Cuba?” I believe five million Cubans saw the fight live from Pittsburgh. And I believe every place you go there are people who love Cuba, who want to improve the relations, and I am so happy. For example, here, how many times in this university have you had a member of the Cuban Embassy?
Gate/Global Voices: Not many. This might be the first time in at least fifty years.
Fraga: Exactly! And what happened? Nothing! I was able to answer questions, real questions, that people had. I was able to present information about Cuba, information that you don’t find often in the media. And I believe that the majority of the people in that room are saying right now, “Why don’t we have normal relations with Cuba? Why can’t I go to Cuba?” So it’s good. The staff of the Cuban Embassy is happy to be in the United States working. It’s a challenge for us because with all this misinformation about Cuba, it’s difficult. But you go and you speak with people, and you present information, and you feel, and you see the real support.
Fraga visited International House as part of the Diplomatic Encounters Series. His visit was co-sponsored by the International House Global Voices Lecture Series, the Institute of Politics, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and the Center for Latin American Studies.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.