TAMPA – More than a million Americans and Cuban-Americans visited Cuba in 2017 and 2018, the Cuban ambassador to the U.S. said today.
“Never before we have had that amount of people coming to Cuba” from the United States, José Ramón Cabañas said.
The flood of visitors helped boost relations between the people of both countries, Cabañas said.
“I’m not the best ambassador to the United States. The best ambassador is our people,” he told a crowd of 130 people at Columbia Restaurant in Tampa’s historic Ybor City.
Cabañas is the first Cuban ambassador to the U.S. since the two nations broke diplomatic relations in 1960. He said he last visited Tampa three years ago. A key purpose of his visit, he said, was to invite local government officials to Havana’s 500th anniversary celebration in the Cuban capital on Nov. 15.
Cabañas said he is proud of the role Cubans have played in the history of Florida.
“Cubans founded Ybor City,” he said. Cubans founded St. Petersburg. Cubans founded Key West.”
Tampa’s Rotary Club invited Cabañas to the event in Ybor City. Cabañas told the crowd that no matter what people read in the media, there have been some positive developments in bilateral relations. There has been more information exchanged among U.S. and Cuban law enforcement agencies over the past two years “than ever before,” he said. Agencies have worked to combat such problems as cyber crime, drug trafficking and illegal immigration, he said.
U.S.-Cuba cooperation helps deter crime, he said.
“Anytime traffickers see agencies are cooperating, they are afraid,” the ambassador said.
He said his office will continue trying to enhance bilateral ties with the U.S. government. The two countries have common interests in such areas as health and migration, he said.
Whether someone is a Republican or a Democrat doesn’t matter if that person is sick or lost in the Florida Straits, he said.
One example of cooperation he cited is the first-ever U.S.-Cuba joint venture, an initiative to develop a vaccine for lung cancer.
Healthcare in Cuba is a “human right,” he said.
The ambassador said Cuba has allowed thousands of foreigners, including Americans, to study medicine on the island for free. Among those attending today’s event was Graham Sowa, who graduated from the Latin American Medical School in Havana.
Cabañas took questions from the crowd. One man asked if the Cuban government would be interested in learning about running a small business from specialists at the U.S. Small Business Administration. The ambassador said Cuban officials began speaking with SBA officials about possible cooperative programs during the Obama administration, but those conversations have been “frozen” since Donald Trump took office.
Cabañas said residents of Florida might find it particularly useful to see the U.S. and Cuba expand bilateral programs involving the environment.
“There’s no debate about climate change in Cuba,” he said. “We can sense what is going on. The only debate is – what do about it? What do we do?
“Climate change is coming no matter what, no matter how much you pray, no matter how much you read the Bible.”
One man asked if there was any possibility that the socialist government would allow U.S. builders to help Cuba rebuild some of the island’s deteriorating homes.
Cabañas said the Cuban government would be open to the idea. He said there is nothing in Cuban legislation “that excludes a U.S. company from doing business in Cuba.”
A private American company could be involved in Cuba’s housing industry “in the future,” he said.
Cabañas said Cuba has had dealings with American companies, buying food, for instance, from U.S. producers. Such purchases peaked at $800 million in 2008. Cabañas said Cuban officials began cutting that amount after seeing that the purchases had no impact on U.S. sanctions toward Cuba.
“The purchases didn’t lead to changes in policies,” he said.
Cabañas said Trump administration sanctions are hurting the Cuban economy. He said he believes U.S. policymakers want to limit travel to the island so that fewer Americans get the chance to see Cuba and develop their own view of the country and its relations with its northern neighbor.
“That is the ultimate aim,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Cabañas met with the editorial board of the Tampa Bay Tribune. See “U.S.-Cuba relations strain again, but ambassador hopes for stronger Tampa ties.”
Asked about reports of acoustic attacks on U.S. diplomats, Cabañas told the editorial board that U.S. government statements about the incidents raise many questions.
American diplomats in Cuba invited 250 of their relatives to Cuba during the months when they were supposedly under attack, he said. If there was any danger, why would diplomats expose their loved ones to the danger? he asked.
Another contradiction, he said, was that a U.S. security official at the American embassy initially said he knew nothing about the supposed attacks. Then, just 24 hours later, the official’s name appeared on a list of embassy employees who were affected by the purposed incident.
Cabañas said he’s not saying no one experienced any injuries. But “to say your diplomats were under attack in Cuba is wrong,” the ambassador told the editorial board.
He was also asked about Trump administration claims that Cuba is somehow propping up Venezuela. He called that a “nonsense argument.” All that’s happening, he said, is that certain U.S. officials are repeating the claim five or six times a day to the media until “that’s suddenly the official truth.”
“But it is not.”