BY MATT KANE
OLD HAVANA, CUBA It was at old Metropolitan Stadium, which sat just a few miles from his boyhood home in Edina, where US Rep. Tom Emmer, of Delano, witnessed the batting excellence of Tony Oliva.
Over the course of 15 seasons with the Twins, from 1962-1976, Oliva was named the Rookie of the Year in 1964, won three American League batting titles and three Gold Gloves, played in eight All-Star games, and collected 1,917 hits.
Oliva was signed by the Twins as an amateur free agent in 1961 out of Cuba, where he was known as Tony Pedro Lopez Oliva. When Oliva came to the United States in 1961, his intent was to earn enough money playing baseball so he could return to Cuba to become a farmer. That return trip never happend, as relations between the United States and Cuba grew cold, and the extended trade embargo signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962 cut off all trade and made travel between the two nations, which sit just 90 miles apart, difficult.
Oliva was able to visit Cuba in 1971 for the first time since leaving, and has been back several times since. He eventually adopted Minnesota as his new home, and currently resides in the ghostly shadow of what was Metropolitan Stadium.
Just as thousands of Cubans, like Oliva, settled down and succeeded in the United States, Emmer and a large contingent of American businessmen and politicians, including President Barack Obama, visited Oliva’s homeland March 19-22 with the hope of eliminating the embargo, thus allowing Cubans and Americans to live and succeed together in Cuba.
“I believe about three-quarters of the American people believe it’s time to normalize relations. Those opposed say that lifting the embargo is only going to help the Castros,” Emmer said Wednesday afternoon from Washington, DC, after returning from Cuba that morning to vote on the House floor. “After going there and seeing where the Castros live, it looks like suburban Dallas. Nicely manicured lawns and mansion-like homes. The rest of Cuba is underwhelming. You can tell the public wants change. The young people, 40 years old and younger, are aspiring for something greater.”
Married couple Al and Cindy Briesemeister, who both taught at Delano and in Zimbabwe before retiring to their home in Delano, recognized the Cuban people’s desire for change during a cultural tour of Cuba back in October.
“They are so friendly and extremely intelligent. They knew so much about the US and Europe. A very intelligent population, and they are extremely open. I felt so welcomed. They really loved Americans,” said Cindy Briesemeister, who taught special education at Delano, of the Cuban people. “We must lift the embargo. I think we are being bullies. Why shouldn’t we have free trade with Cuba? You look at all the countries we have free trade with, it’s not like you can isolate Cuba. There are a lot of countries just like Cuba, politically speaking, that we do have free trade with. I agree with Obama that it is time to lift the trade embargo. And with Emmer, too.”
The Briesemeisters and Emmer sit on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but agree it’s time to lift the embargo.
“Cuba has been closed for so many years,” Emmer said. “If you want to start solving the human rights issues, you open it up and allow sunlight to pour in so they can see what’s going on. You empower the people to do something for themselves.”
President Obama spread the same message, much to Emmer’s delight.
“To dispel any rumors, I was not flying on Air Force One. The president and I are not that close. I was pretty nervous that he was actually going to be more of a problem than a benefit to what I was trying to accomplish,” Emmer admitted. “But the president hit all the right chords from my perspective.”
Obama received Emmer’s approval for two main reasons: “One: He was speaking to the young people of Cuba. He was talking to them about human rights. The President put out a call to young Cuban people to own their country’s future and to change it from within. Two: he was speaking to Cuban-American patriots whose families lost property and loved ones. Hearts ache for their homeland. They want to see this relationship renewed,” Emmer said. “Those two things are exactly what we have been trying to emphasize. If you want to see the human rights addressed, if you want to see Cuban people succeed and thrive, that’s what lifting the embargo is all about, rather than prolonging the flawed Cold War policies that have had the opposite of its intended effect.
“It’s too important for us to ignore. Cold War policies of the past created a situation that wasn’t exactly beneficial to the United States, and they almost resulted in nuclear conflict, which people should not forget.”
The Cuban people are gaining access to the outside world and another way of life through technology.
“They talk about freedom of speech and access to the Internet. The state-owned communications company told us on our visit in February that they had now sold, since March of 2014, 1 million cell phones to Cubans. Forty years old and younger are buying the vast majority of cell phones,” Emmer explained. “The government is still controlling and protective, but you do get access, more than ever in the past, to average Cubans.”
The rise in access to technology means there is a need in Cuba for more products. Emmer sees the United States, and his home state of Minnesota, as prime suppliers of such goods, as well as suppliers of much-needed food.
“Cuba’s agriculture markets are estimated to be a potential $2 billion market for U.S. agriculture. And that’s just the agricultural stuff,” Emmer said. “I realize it is only a population of 11 million, but they import 80 percent of their food. We have a lot to offer in, not only agriculture products, but, in technology.”
Sitting at his kitchen counter clicking through photos from his visit to Cuba Thursday afternoon, Al Briesemeister pointed to the potential gain for Minnesota if the embargo is lifted.
“Cuba really wants to expand its agriculture, and, in Minnesota, this is something we do. Right away, it’s an export,” said Briesemeister, who taught science at Delano Middle School. “Every day, we would say how glad we were that we went to Cuba and we loved being there, and we always said we were being impacted just as much by the embargo as the Cubans are. Here is a place we want to go, and there are so many ways American businesses could be connected there, and we don’t get that side of it. The embargo is not a one-way thing.”
One worry, Emmer admits, is Cuba will become Americanized if the embargo is lifted. Whether that happens or not is completely up to the Cuban people, he said.
“Americans think they will tell people what they should and shouldn’t do. At the end of the day, this is about empowering the Cubans and letting them decide what Cuba should be. When the embargo is lifted, it is up to them what they will and will not allow, and the Americans need to respect that,” said Emmer.
Visiting as a cultural tourist, Cindy Briesemeister believes the Cuban people know what they have, and recognize why foreigners visit the island nation.
“I don’t think it will change that rapidly. I think they have gone beyond that stage, and they look at who they are and what they have, and I think that is what brings the tourism over there,” she explained. “They have so much tourism over there, they cannot keep up. That’s kind of scary, because now they are opening up ports because they don’t have a lot of high-end hotels or medium hotels.”
The visit in October was the first for the Briesemeisters. The recent visit was Emmer’s third trip to the island nation. The rookie congressman has seen major change in how the Cubans look at Americans.
“When I was there at the end of June, they were very suspicious-like. They were closed and not as friendly. They were more professional. I took a group six weeks ago to expose (congressional colleagues) to what I had seen, and the change (in the Cuban officials) was dramatic. The foreign minister was jovial and he was joking with the group and was very open. A lot of teasing going back-and-forth between him and the members I was with,” Emmer explained. “I saw 20-something kids in the streets wearing American flag T-shirts. I saw a rickshaw with an American flag hanging down the back of it. In just that six or seven-month period (from June to February), the change was dramatic.
“This visit accelerated (progress) even more. People were lining the curbs waving and giving the thumbs-up. Cuban and American flags next to each other hanging off balconies.”
The Cuban people, from the poor all the way up to the top government officials, are ready for the embargo to be lifted, according to Emmer.
“What wowed me is that Raúl Castro is not like Fidel,” he said. “Raúl is looking to the future. He has figured out, with the communication age upon us, they will have to be connected to the Internet. They will have to join the 21st century technology age.
“What Raúl and his (officials) have figured out is that it is much easier to allow people to accept change than it is to control and be aware of their every move. They are slowly moving in that direction. We should support them in doing this by lifting the embargo.”
A story told by a Cuban-American businessman from South Florida during the recent trip to Cuba, emphasized the Cuban people’s desire for change.
“One of the gentlemen got up and told us the story of an 80-something-year-old Cuban woman who approached him on the street and said ‘American businessman.’ He said, ‘No. I am a Cuban American businessman. This is where I come from, and we’re back.’ This 80-something-year-old woman looked at him and said, ‘Thank God, the war is over,’” Emmer said. “That gives you an idea of where the people are coming from.”
The people of Cuba, and even the people on the other side of the aisle, seem to be in favor of lifting the trade embargo. It’s the people on Emmer’s own Republican side of the aisle who will need the most convincing.
“Some of my Cold-War-mentality colleagues will say, ‘What are we getting for this?’ My first response is that lifting the embargo shouldn’t be about leveraging something to extract out of Cuba,” Emmer said. “What are we getting? I tell you what. We are instantly enhancing and rebuilding our relationships with other countries beyond Cuba in the Western Hemisphere, which is incredibly important to the future of this country and to our safety and security. Especially in this world.”
A stable relationship with Cuba would greatly benefit the United States, according to Emmer, who admits to growing up with Cold War influences.
“We set up an embargo in 1960 to isolate the Cuban government in an effort to undermine the Cuban government and to put the people back in charge of their destinies,” said Emmer. “We didn’t isolate Cuba, we isolated the United States of America. Quite frankly, we pushed Cuba to align with the Soviet Union. I would hate to see us make that same mistake going forward. Now that this process has started, this is about making sure that we normalize relations so that we do not allow someone else to move in when Raúl Castro steps down in 2018.”
When the embargo was set 55 years ago, Cuba was supported by the Soviet Union. The repercussion of the Soviet downfall, when the walls came down and the Soviet Union broke apart, gravely affected Cuba.
“The deal that (Fidel) Castro made with the Soviets was, ‘We’ll be part of the communist system and we are going to get oil from you, and you are going to take care of our energy needs,’ and they made Cuba their number-one supplier of sugar. So Cuba grew a ton of sugar cane and never expanded their agriculture because the other foods were coming from the Soviets. When everything fell apart, what did Cuba have? They didn’t have energy. They had sugar,” explained Al Briesemeister, who grew up in Miami and remembers Cuban-American children joining his gradeschool classroom when Kennedy signed the embargo into action.
When the Soviet Union fell, the best market to import agriculture and other products was just 90 miles away, but the embargo made the goods of the United States unattainable to the Cubans.
“That was the really hard time in Cuba the 1990s,” Al Briesemeister was told by Cuban locals. “A lot of Cubans will tell you they had nothing and they had no way of getting anything. The embargo was really a stranglehold on them. That’s what happens when you take away the largest market, which is right next to you.”
Emmer urges the next president to pay more attention to America’s closest neighbors, for more reasons than just open trade.
“This is matter of pure economics and national security, which does not get discussed enough. I think our presidential candidates on both sides would be well-served to begin talking about the real and severe consequences of not having a presence in Cuba, and its impact on our standing in the Western Hemisphere,” he said. “We’ve spent a lot of time focusing on things happening on either side of the Atlantic and Pacific and we need to pay more attention to what is happening in our backyard. It’s about taking care of the South American countries and the Latin countries which have been opposed to our position for a long time.”
The recent trip brought the conditions in Cuba to the attention of more than 1,100 people who were part of the presidential visit.
“We just had thousands of observers walking the streets of Havana the last two-plus days,” said Emmer. “That’s how you start to solve the human rights issues by opening the country up and engaging humans. You don’t do it by keeping the country closed and allowing things to happen behind the curtains created by the embargo.”
Emmer’s voice is being heard.
“We haven’t had this discussion because the pro-embargo people have been the only voice in congress for so many years. Now, I can tell you, through the conversations with my colleagues, they understand that it’s not a matter of if the embargo is going to be lifted, the only question left is when.”
So, what is the answer to the question ‘When?’
Potentially, quite soon.
“There is still an opportunity to get it lifted before the end of 2016, but that would be a Hail Mary pass. A lot of things would have to fall into place for that to happen, but certainly, with all the things that are happening right now, we have a real opportunity to get it done at this congress and I will work to make that happen,” said Emmer. “Even if it didn’t, certainly it is in position to be dealt with in the next congress.”
Before leaving Cuba Tuesday night, Emmer and the presidential party attended five innings of a baseball game between the Cuban National Team and the Tampa Bay Rays.
After nine innings of festive baseball, the American and Cuban pastime, the scoreboard indicated that the visiting American team bettered the local Cubans 4-1. That score, however, was nothing more than numbers, as the postgame interaction between the players from both squads indicated they were both winners in the grand scheme.
If the American and Cuban dignitaries would have stuck around until the end of the game, they may have noticed an ironic occurrence, considering the primary purpose for the American’s visit to Cuba. As the players from the two teams greeted each other on the field, many exchanged jerseys.
In other words, Americans are already trading with Cubans.