Iowa’s proud history of advocacy to normalize relations with Cuba


COOPER, Iowa, Oct. 2, 2018 – After traveling to Cuba 18 months ago, then studying and thinking about it, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t get involved earlier in my life in the beautiful island nation that is one of the most interesting places on Earth.

But I’m happy and proud to be able to say that a whole lot of Iowans figured out a couple things about Cuba long before I did.

Those two things: 1) It turns out that many if not most of our own nation’s policies toward Cuba have been wrong-headed, cruel, ineffective, even counter-productive, and 2) there seems to be real potential for mutual benefit for Cuba and for the state of Iowa if our nations can just draw a line, let go of the conflicted and disputed past, and focus on building new, respectful relationships between their people and ours.

“They’re great people,” Patty Judge, the former Iowa Lt. Gov. and former state Secretary of Agriculture, said of Cubans when she was telling me about her experiences there. “They should be our brothers and sisters.”

Boswell Judge Byers in Cuba in 2003.jpg

Picture shows the late Congressman Leonard Boswell, of Iowa, in Havana, Cuba, in 2003 meeting with President Fidel Castro. On Boswell’s left is Iowa Secretary of Agriculture then, Patty Judge, and on the right of Boswell is Jay Byers, now CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. Byers is one of the speakers this Sunday, Oct. 7, at a forum on Cuba being held at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Des Moines.

Cuba imports more than 80 percent of its food and specifically needs grain and pork. It also needs all kinds of equipment, developmental expertise, infrastructure overhaul, and information technology. It offers Iowa and the rest of the world advances in healthcare, public education, fruit, vegetables, sugar, and fantastic tourism opportunities.

All of the above is actually a common feeling about Cuba all across Iowa, as far as I can determine. Or at least it’s the common feeling among people here who have followed news and developments about U.S.-Cuba relations over the years. That includes the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, the Greater Des Moines Partnership economic development organization, most of Iowa’s ag commodity groups, our manufacturers, our healthcare providers, universities and most of our churches. That Des Moines Partnership has taken three delegations of Iowa business leaders to Cuba over the past 15 years to learn more. And the consensus seems to span the political spectrum here.

We’ll be talking about that this Sunday afternoon at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Des Moines. Plymouth’s 5-year-old “Cuba Partnership Team,” which Carla Offenburger and I have become involved with, is hosting a forum we’ve titled, “Why Cuba matters to Iowa.” You can get all the details by clicking here.

TO GET A CONTRARY VIEW OF CUBA, and to find rigid opposition to any new friendship between Cuba and the U.S., you really have to go to South Florida. There you find the aging Cubans, a lot of them very wealthy, who fled their home country when the revolution happened in 1959. Many of them owned or had interests in large companies that were taken over by the revolutionary regime led by Fidel Castro.

With their continuing political influence – and major cash contributions to candidates – these Cuban expatriates, and in some cases their descendents, have managed to dictate and control harsh U.S. government policies toward Cuba. That has included the “blockade” against Cuba that, at various times over the past 60 years, has prohibited trade, travel, tourism, cultural enrichment and even humanitarian exchanges between our two countries.

There are two good things about that South Florida opposition to better Cuba-U.S. relations:

–Younger Cubans growing up there now – and in Cuba – aren’t buying it. They want open trade and travel that will let them enjoy the economic and cultural opportunities that young people now have in most of the world.

–Remember in late 2014, when Pope Francis persuaded U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, to work toward normalizing relations? For the next two years, there was lots of travel, tourism and enjoyment between the people of Cuba and the U.S. There was tremendous hope. And even though current President Donald Trump decided to slow all that down in late 2017, it was like the genie Freedom had already been let out of the bottle. The people of both countries are ready to embrace, if we can persuade both governments to get out of our way.

Now, let’s talk to some of the Iowans who got involved with Cuba much earlier than I have, and you’ll hear from others at Sunday’s forum.

JON TORGERSON, of Urbandale, a retired philosophy professor at Drake University in Des Moines, has watched Iowa’s interest in Cuba grow since 1986. That’s when he made the first of his 14 trips to Cuba.

“Back then it was very hard to get there,” Torgerson recalled. “I connected with a minister from Illinois who was interested in going. Cuba had strong ties to the Soviet Union, they didn’t want any tourists there then, in fact they were convinced that American tourism would be the downfall of their government.

“That changed after 1992, with the fall of the Soviet bloc,” he continued. “The Soviets had been Cuba’s supplier of nearly everything, and Cuba was thrown into an economic crisis. They were trying to find ways to generate income, and that led to a year-long conference there about tourism. They decided to start opening up to tourists from around the world, although there still weren’t many from the States because it was against our own laws to go there.”

Nevertheless, Torgerson joined a group of about 100 Americans who made another trip, risking prosecution when they returned, but then the U.S. Department of Justice waved off that idea, he said.

Later in his career, he took five different groups of Drake students to Cuba. He studied social justice issues in Cuba, wrote about them, has lectured publicly about his experiences, and has taught short courses on Cuba. He just completed one of those in September, called “The Joy of Cuba,” for Drake’s Ray Society adult continuing-learning program.

He says despite the official U.S. characterizations of Cuba as being an oppressive and unstable nation, “actually, of all of Latin and South America, Cuba probably has had the most stable government of the last 60 years. Many U.S. officials contended that as soon as Fidel Castro died, there’d be anther revolution in Cuba. But, as we’ve seen, that hasn’t happened. There’s been no major move to try to overthrow the Cuban government by anybody but the United States.”

Torgerson has watched the Communist Party in Cuba lose some of its sway over the people. The party leaders and faithful are aging, and actually govern from the right instead of the left. “Back in the early 1990s, you heard people in Cuba say they were members of the Communist Party, or wanted to be,” he said. “Now that basically has disappeared. Most of the people have decided they have better things to do.”

IN THE EARLY 2000S, BUSINESS EXECUTIVE TOM RIAL made five different trips to Cuba with different learning and advocacy groups. His first went in 2002 with Patty Judge, when she was Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. He recalls other trips in that era by the Iowa Corn Growers leadership, by U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell of Iowa, and by U.S. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa.

“We were doing a lot of advocacy back then, and we took some heat for it, occasionally,” said Rial, who is now an import-export compliance and logistics manager with Vermeer Corporation in Pella, as well as serving as secretary of the Iowa Sisters States organization. “I even talked to Iowa Sister States about adding the whole country of Cuba added a sister state of Iowa, but that didn’t happen.”

He’s watched the U.S. official position toward Cuba wax and wane over the years. But as for businesses and organizations in the state of Iowa, “I think a lot of us want to continue our engagement with Cuba,” he said.

FOR PATTY JUDGE, like most of us who are 60 and older, post-revolutionary Cuba was “kind of a mysterious place for a long time.” We remember it, pre-revolution, as a glamorous vacation spot that many wealthy Iowans would visit in the late 1940s and ’50s. Then came the Castros, with their band of guerrillas overthrowing the oppressive, corrupt Batista government.

“At first here in the U.S., the Castros were supposedly heroes, but then suddenly they weren’t,” said Judge, who after a long career in public office in Iowa, is now retired in her hometown of Albia. “It was confusing.”

When the Castros decided they were communists, and announced that, it closed a lot of international doors, especially the big one to the U.S. And for a long time, Cuba dropped off the radar for a lot of people, including Iowans.

But you read earlier here how Cuba began resuming contact with the rest of the world in the 1990s. Judge spent eight years of that decade in the Iowa Senate, and then in 1998 was elected Iowa Secretary of Agriculture.

In the first of her eight years in that office, the department’s receptionist called her one day and said “there are some people here saying they are high-ranking Cuba officials, and they’d like to see you. So I went up to meet this man and woman, who introduced themselves and showed me their credentials. The woman was Marilu B’Hamel, a member of Fidel Castro’s cabinet,” actually the director of the “North America Department” of the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Trade & Foreign Investment.

“I never did find out how they got to Des Moines or why they decided to contact me,” Judge said, “but it turned out that Marilu and I were the same age, and we really hit it off with each other. We had a great conversation,” and then stayed in touch subsequently.

The Cuban government was then very interested in buying Iowa grain – particularly soybeans – and pork, too.

Before long, Judge was in Washington, D.C., for some meetings at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and B’Hamel arranged for a dinner at an address in nearby Rockville, Maryland. “A member of my staff and I rode the Metro train from downtown Washington out to Rockville, and they we had to take a cab to get to this address,” Judge recalled. “We both thought we were heading to a restaurant, but the cab driver took us out into a residential neighborhood, pulled up to a house and said, ‘This is it!’ I stayed in the cab at first, while my staff member went up and knocked on the door to see if this could possibly be the right place. And it was!

“There were about a dozen Cubans there, and the two of us. They had a big, grand feast for us, and we had a wonderful time – with really good conversations. I remember saying to this one young woman, ‘Your English is excellent – where did you learn it?’ And her answer was, ‘In Moscow.’ ”

At the end of the evening, one of the Cuban officials drove Judge and her associate back to their hotel. “When we got there,” she recalled, “he jumped out of the car, walked us into the lobby, gave me kisses on both cheeks and said, ‘Until we meet again in Havana!’ I thought, yeah, right, me in Havana. But one year later, that’s right where I was.”

That was in 2002, and Cuba had been badly battered by a hurricane.

“They were asking for help, wanting to buy ag products and medical supplies,” Judge said. “As a result, there was kind of a chink in the embargo. The Cubans invited us to come or a forum and talk about what we could offer.”

It was the first of five trips to Cuba for Judge, all as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, and on one of them, she negotiated a significant sale of Iowa soybeans to Cuba.

She met Fidel Castro “several times” on those trips, “and once a group of us even had dinner with him, and it started at midnight! That was an experience! You know, from all the stories we’d all heard about him, you almost expected him to be a guy with devil’s horns and a tail. But here he was, just as nice and charming as he could be, and very interesting to talk to.”

Judge is among many who think the American embargo of Cuba has not only been harmful to the Cuban people but also counter-productive for the U.S. The idea behind it was that if deprived long enough, Cuba’s people might overthrow Castro. That isn’t how it turned out.

“I believe the embargo allowed him to stay in power,” she said. “The economic freeze we were trying to put on them allowed the Soviets to come in there, and when they did, they kept Castro in power.”

The future?

“I think the Cuban people need us, and we need to decide that we’re going to commit some resources and do some development there,” Judge said. “They’re smart, they’re industrious, and they’ll do very well with some help from us. They’ll be great neighbors, and if things get straightened around between our two countries, Cuba will be a place Iowans will love going.”

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Need to freshen up on your general history of Cuba.  After visiting that nation in the spring of 2017, Chuck Offenburger wrote a concise reflection on Cuba’s history that you can read by clicking here.


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