On a wall of the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana, hanging among pictures of luminaries like Nat King Cole and Rita Hayworth, is the image of Gov. Dave Heineman.
Heineman visited Cuba in 2005, 2006 and 2007 to sign $70 million worth of agricultural export deals. While those contracts were filled, trade eventually dwindled because U.S. restrictions on trade with the Communist country required all deals to be done with cash up front, an onerous requirement for a country where cash is in tight supply.
Renewing those economic ties began to look more feasible Wednesday after President Barack Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic and economic ties with the island nation.
“If you’re out in western Nebraska and you’re growing beans today, I think the prospects have immediately increased for you to have an opportunity to sell to Cuba,” said University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, who has spent 25 years researching Cuba and written three books on it.
“Nebraska has a history with Cuba. … They know us, we know them. Our folks have been there a number of times in the past, and I think they are looking forward to opening those relationships again.”
One Mitchell-area bean grower, Dean Keener, who also happens to be president of the Nebraska Dry Bean Growers Association, said he is optimistic about the prospect of a new export market but suspects it will take time for the economic doors to be flung wide open.
“Any time you have a door that has been closed crack open some, that is good news,” he said. “But we don’t want it to come at the expense of what we stand for either.”
Lazaro Arturo Spindola, executive director of the Lincoln-based Nebraska Latino American Commission, seconded that concern and questioned the message being sent by the Obama administration.
“Sometimes I wonder about the duality of the message we send to the world. We do not agree with the way a country is treating its citizens, yet we kind of promote the trade that will sustain that régime from being dumped by the people, basically being ousted out of government by a democratic process.”
Spindola was born in Cuba, but his family fled country to Venezuela when he was 9 years old in 1961. That was the same year the U.S. severed diplomatic relations with the country. Spindola says he still sees the same political and human rights abuses happening today that led his parents to flee.
“Are we acknowledging there is no way to eliminate these evils from the world … so if you can’t beat them, join them?”
He is skeptical about whether restoring diplomacy will benefit those suffering under a dictatorship.
“I don’t see this as a clear pathway to improving the conditions of the humans who are living on the island,” Spindola said.
Obama addressed such criticisms from the White House, saying that 50 years of isolation has not solved the problem and it’s time for a new approach.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-1st District), like many other Republican politicians, criticized Obama and called for justice for those who suffered under the leadership of Fidel Castro and his brother.
“While it is time to move past communism and the legacy of colonialism in Cuba, before there is a rush to normalized relations, there needs to be a recognition of the serious human rights violations that continue today. We also need to acknowledge the many Cuban-Americans victimized by the Castro family’s cruelty and injustice.”
Nebraska Department of Agriculture Director Greg Ibach focused on potential economic benefits for the state.
“I am pleased to hear Cuba may now have greater opportunity to make purchases from the U.S. marketplace," he said by email. "Provided the right set of circumstances, this has the potential to open additional selling opportunities to our agricultural producers and companies.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups offered support for Obama’s plans, saying open dialogue and commerce will benefit both countries and allow free enterprise to flourish.
There is much more work to do in both the United States and Cuba before full normalization of economic and diplomatic relations can be realized, Benjamin-Alvarado said.
“The president has done as much as he has been able to do. The rest of it is going to depend on Congress,” he said.
“Symbolically this is huge. Historically it is a step away from the policy we have had in place for the past 54 years. At the end of the day, it’s really a strong promise where there was no hope before.”
Heineman did not respond to requests for comment.