Politicians, artists and academics reflected Saturday on the legacy of former Cuban president Fidel Castro, who died Friday at the age of 90.
Castro’s death coincides with significant shifts in relations between Cuba and the United States, which for more than five decades severed diplomatic ties with the island nation while under his rule. Minnesotans have varying ties to Cuba, ranging from the state orchestra’s historic trip there in 2015, to festivals and restaurants in the Twin Cities that preserve and highlight Cuban culture.
Although federal relations between the United States and Cuba have long been limited, Minnesota politicians have championed policy to lift the trade embargo on Cuba, citing the potential for economic and political advancements and job growth. In 2015, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, along with other a bipartisan group of lawmakers, introduced a bill to end the embargo. Castro’s death could mark the end of a tumultuous era, she said.
“He has been out of power, however, he has always been a shadow looming over any changes between our country and Cuba,” she said in an interview. “A lot of American-Cuban relations are based on events from the past ... where people died as a result.”
Klobuchar said that Minnesotans could benefit from business and travel opportunities, especially to escape the cold weather. Catholic communities in Minnesota would also value the moral obligation to Cubans living under “archaic rule,” Klobuchar said.
Cubans are also developing Mariel Port into a major international hub, which could carry Minnesota-made goods. Other companies, including Sun Country Airlines, Radisson Hotels and Cargill, could benefit from lifting the embargo, she said.
Republican Rep. Tom Emmer said in a statement Saturday that Congress should seize the opportunity to “assist in the transition to a democracy and market economy” in Cuba and denounced “isolation and exclusion.”
“The passing of Fidel Castro is yet another reminder that a new day is dawning in Cuba,” Emmer said. “As the remaining vestiges of the Cold War continue to fade, the United States has a chance to help usher in a new Cuba; a Cuba where every citizen has the rights, freedom and opportunity they deserve.”
Sen. Al Franken said that, in the wake of Castro’s death, he hopes the Obama administration’s work to repair relations with the island nation is upheld by a new administration.
“Over the past few years, we’ve made important strides to open up diplomatic relations with Cuba, and now I urge the country’s leadership to put a strong focus on improving human rights and democracy.” he said in a statement.
Americans’ perceptions of Cuban government differ from those of populations on other continents, according to Gary Prevost, a member of Minnesota’s Cuba Committee, which supports the normalization of relations with the country. People in South America and Africa will remember Castro for his role in the Cuban Revolution and programs in health, education and food security.
“I am struck by the fact that his passing is being mourned today by world leaders from across the planet,” said Prevost, who teaches Latin American studies at St. John’s University in Collegeville. “He’s obviously viewed very differently by the political establishment in the U.S. because he took Cuba from being a close ally to an adversary.”
Prevost said he doesn’t think Castro’s death will influence future U.S. relations with Cuba. Instead, the future of the relations will depend on President-elect Donald Trump, who has shown mixed opinions on the Obama administration’s work to restore diplomatic ties, Prevost said.
“I think the U.S. business community will press him very hard to continue the openings because they are creating important new business opportunities,” Prevost said.
Last year the Minnesota Orchestra took a historic trip to Cuba as the first U.S. orchestra to perform there since Obama began negotiations in 2014. In June, orchestra members will perform in Cuba again along with Minnesota Youth Symphonies, according to trumpet player Manny Laureano.
In Havana, the role of music as an integral form of expression was evident, Laureano said.
“The thing that is too overwhelming to me as a musician is how vital music is to the Cuban people,” Laureano said. “It is the one means of expression that they can commit to on a very wide basis on the island.”
Political leaders should learn directly from Cubans, Laureano said, and President-elect Trump should focus on improving the lives of both Americans and Cubans “to the extent that he can.”
“I think we are living in interesting times,” he said, “and it just got more interesting.”
Even though Castro’s health had been deteriorating for a decade, his death still stung for people who grew up under his leadership in Cuba.
In 2001, musician Ignacio “Nachito” Herrera moved from Cuba to Minnesota with his wife, who works as an attorney. They’ve since visited family in Cuba more than half a dozen times and will return again with the orchestra in June. Herrera grew up during the Cuban Revolution and credits Castro’s leadership for the career opportunities he and his wife have achieved.
“We definitely feel very sad about what happened,” Herrera said. “We knew it was going to happen sometime.”
Herrera met Castro in the 1980s while being recognized in a Classic World Piano competition. Castro was humble, Herrera said, and deeply curious about his accomplishments.
“He knows about everything, and he always wants to know everything,” Herrera said. “He was always asking many questions. That was the type of person he was.”