Located less than 100 miles from Florida, Cuba and its relations with the United States are changing rapidly.

With a population about the size of Ohio — 11.2 million — Cuba has been a nemesis to the U.S. and in the cross hairs of global conflict for the last half-century, most prominently as the Soviet Union's Communist stalking horse in Latin and South America during the Cold War in the early 1960s-1990s.

In December, my wife and I joined — as the only Minnesotans — a group of 15 American professionals from nine states for an intensive cultural and educational tour of Cuba. We stayed in Havana, Vinales, Trinidad and Cienfuegos and traveled the island extensively by bus, averaging about 100 miles a day.

We visited many sites that have been a part of the shared history between the two nations, including the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis museums.

We toured with various guides and lecturers — a representative of the Cuban government was with us nearly all the time — sharing our experiences on what is a beautiful Caribbean island populated with inventive, lively and musical people.

We were shown an advanced neighborhood-based health care system that serves everyone without delay and free of charge. We learned that 99 percent of Cubans can read and write by age 15. In Cuba, for the one in 10 selected for higher education, college is also free — meaning no ­student loan bills.

The country's art scene is highly regarded, just like its boxers and baseball players. Their rum and cigars are the envy of the world. Violent crime rates are low, especially when compared to neighboring countries.

When it comes to America doing business with Cuba, things are heavily restricted. The long-standing U.S. trade embargo is enforced mainly through six statutes, some dating back nearly a century: the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917; the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961; the Cuban Assets Control Regulations of 1963; the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992; the Helms-Burton Act of 1996; and the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000.

The purpose of all of this is to maintain sanctions so long as the Cuban government refuses to move toward "democratization and greater respect for human rights." America over the years has adopted a welcoming policy toward Cuban refugees, allowing virtually all who reach U.S. soil to settle and eventually apply for citizenship.

Most Americans favor ending the embargo; about 1 in 3 wants to continue it. In politically pivotal Florida, where 70 percent of the over 2 million Cubans living in America reside, a June 2014 poll showed 52 percent of Cuban-Americans oppose the embargo and 48 percent support it.

Normalizing relations

Among other normalization reforms, in a prisoner exchange with Cuba announced last month by Presidents Obama and Raúl Castro — brother of Fidel who stepped down in 2008 after 49 years as Cuba's unchallenged dictator — said they wanted to re-establish diplomatic relations and loosen travel and economic restrictions.

Obama announced a review of Cuba's status as a terrorist state and an intention to ask Congress to remove the embargo entirely, something that is unlikely to happen before this U.S. presidential election. Cuba agreed to release 53 of its own political prisoners and to allow Red Cross and U.N. human-rights investigators observe.

With the aging Raúl stepping down after his five-year term, Cuba has announced a free and open election for a new president in 2018; a new constitution or major revisions of the current one is also planned. These could be good signs for those seeking a normalization of relations.

Regarding financial institutions, the plan is that U.S. banks will be allowed to open accredited accounts in Cuban banks, something that would have been welcomed by our group as we struggled to understand the value of the Cuban peso.

Minnesotans have been interested in Cuba for a long time. Nearly two decades ago, the University of St. Thomas baseball team played there. A year ago, the Minnesota Orchestra was well received for its performances in Cuba.

Politicians have encouraged a more normal relationship with Cuba through trade missions. In 2010, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn. introduced a bill that would allow Americans to travel to Cuba. Late last year, freshman Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., sponsored legislation that essentially lifted the economic blockade (Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn, is sponsoring similar legislation.) Gov. Mark Dayton's office has said he's considering a trade mission.

Tough life for Cubans

Dollars are a big part of it as Cuba now must import 80 percent of its food, and this fact alone could bring 6,000 additional jobs and as much $1.5 billion in revenue to American food producers like Cargill. Minnesota's agriculture industry will have much to gain with the lifting of the embargo, according to Eric Schwartz, dean of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

In the latest Human Development Index, a composite statistic of life expectancy, education and income per capita prepared by the United Nations and released in December, Cuba is ranked 67th out of 188 countries, falling from 44th in 2010.

A worker's average monthly income is $20. Costly maintenance is desperately needed on roads, bridges and buildings, including homes. Though no one is allowed to talk on the record about it, the nation retains a Stalin-Khrushchev-like surveillance system, adopted after Fidel Castro took power in the 1959 revolution, with neighbors watching and reporting on one another.

Most average Cubans have been welcoming to the record high 150,000 US citizens who traveled there last year. One reported tourism goal is to annually host 1.5 million Americans. The truth is that Cuba lacks capacity to host more tourists. There is an immediate need for more tourist-friendly places to stay, good restaurants and trained guides.

Only about 5 percent of Cubans can access the Internet, with no uncensored news and limited telephone connections outside the country. Anti-Uncle Sam, pro "revolution" billboards are posted on well-traveled roadways. A Cuban is unable to send or receive letters from the U.S., though it was announced when we were there that an experiment between Cuba and the U.S. Postal Service may pave the way for that.

Cubans themselves are severely restricted. Said one frustrated Cuban to us in a private conversion, "the island is a prison."