Cubans become the road warriors of D.C. diplomatic corps

José Ramón Cabañas, Cuban ambassador to the United States, left, speaks with the Tampa Bay Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash during a meeting with the paper’s editorial board on May 12, 2017. It was one of the stops on the Cuban diplomat’s recent trip to the Tampa Bay area.
José Ramón Cabañas, Cuban ambassador to the United States, left, speaks with the Tampa Bay Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash during a meeting with the paper’s editorial board on May 12, 2017. It was one of the stops on the Cuban diplomat’s recent trip to the Tampa Bay area. Tampa Bay Times

Cuban diplomats have been traveling across the United States so frequently since President Donald Trump took office that the slogan of the Cuban Embassy in Washington could be “See America First.”

They've spoken at college campuses from Harvard University to Montana State and logged miles in Pennsylvania, Montana, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Louisiana, the Washington suburbs and most recently Florida. They’ve visited mayors, governors, and legislators along the way and collected proclamations in support of lifting the embargo from city councils and mayors.

So far this month, Cuban Ambassador to the U.S. José Ramón Cabañas traveled to Baltimore to receive Cuban artists participating in a joint show with American artists called “Building Bridges: The Politics of Love, Identity and Race,” spent four days filled with meetings in the Tampa Bay area, and traveled to Kentucky where he met with Gov. Matt Bevin, the mayors of Lexington and Louisville and Kentucky business executives — and the month isn’t even over yet.

In the Bluegrass State, Cabañas tweeted he was the first Cuban representative to be invited to the Kentucky Derby and posted pictures of Churchill Downs. He also posed with Cuban Americans who had restored a monument to 19th century Cuban patriot José Martí in Shively, Ky., and learned about making barrels for bourbon, beer, wine and rum at the Kelvin Cooperage.

At the end of April, he was in New Orleans for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival where Cuba was the featured foreign country and some 150 Cuban artists and musicians participated. A Cuban flag was among those that flew from the center flagpole at Jazz Fest.

The goal of the frenetic travel: to win friends and influence people and make sure the fledgling U.S.-Cuba relationship continues to improve under the new administration.

“We are ready and open to work with the Trump administration, and we believe that we can build a future of cooperation with the United States in many subjects, although we recognize that there are many areas in which we will not agree,” Cabañas said during a World Affairs Council luncheon at the University of Louisville.

It is a message that Cuban leader Raúl Castro has emphasized since shortly after President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

“I want to express the willingness of Cuba to continue negotiating on pending bilateral matters with the United States on the basis of equality, reciprocity and respect for the sovereignty and independence of our country and to pursue a respectful dialogue and cooperation on topics of common interest,” Castro said during the Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in January.

But where the U.S.-Cuba relationship is heading is unclear.

The Trump administration is conducting a top-to-bottom review of all former President Barack Obama’s executive orders on Cuba since the rapprochement began on Dec. 17, 2014, and it’s expected to be completed soon. Trump has said that the previous administration made too many concessions to Cuba in negotiations that led to restoration of diplomatic relations on July 20, 2015, and he wants a better deal for the United States.

“As we move forward with that review, I suspect that there will be important differences [with the Obama administration] in how this government plans to address the situation in Cuba,” said Francisco Palmieri, acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, during the 47th Washington Conference on the Americas on May 9. “One of the areas that is going to be a great priority will be to ensure that Cuba makes more substantive progress towards greater respect for human rights within the country.”

In the meantime, Cuban diplomats, whose travel in the United States was once highly restricted, have been hitting the road.

“Cuban diplomats are getting their message out personally, trying to create new relationships and solidify the ones they already have,” said Saul Cimbler, who is president of Cuba Business Advisory and travels to the island frequently.

Rather than an over-arching Cuban public relations strategy, the diplomatic travel “more than anything else responds to people knocking on the embassy’s door — cultural organizations, governors, educational institutions — inviting them to visit,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a coalition of companies and organizations that supports lifting the embargo.

It’s normal for embassy personnel around the world to reach out to groups in their host countries. But before Cuba and the United States renewed diplomatic relations, the travel of Cuban diplomats in Washington and New York was limited to just 25 miles from their diplomatic missions without prior approval and permission wasn’t always given. During the George W. Bush administration, Cuban diplomats weren’t allowed to travel beyond the Beltway.

U.S. diplomats in Havana faced similar travel restrictions.

During the Obama administration, Cuban diplomats began crisscrossing the United States with road shows on U.S.-Cuba relations, Cuban achievements in healthcare and literacy and “the desired future,” which from Cuba’s point of view means the end to the embargo and the return of the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay.

Now some senior diplomats have no restrictions on travel and other diplomatic personnel in both countries are required to notify their host governments of travel plans but don’t have to ask permission, said a State Department spokesperson.

“Cuban diplomats had to ask special permission for so long; now they’re accepting invitations all over the country,” said Bill Carlson, president of Tucker/Hall, a Tampa-based public relations firm that has pushed for engagement with Cuba and has helped lead Tampa area delegations to the island.

It was St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman who invited Cabañas to the Tampa Bay area earlier this month, said Carlson. Kriseman would very much like Cuba to plant its first U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. So far, the Cubans have been noncommittal.

During his May 11-14 trip, Cabañas visited the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida; St. Petersburg’s Art District where he found parallels with Havana’s Fabrica de Arte; and José Martí Park in Tampa’s historic Ybor City. He also met with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board and was hosted by Kriseman at a reception at the Salvador Dalí Museum.

Cuban diplomats like to stack several talks and visits together on their trips and they’ve become prolific Tweeters, posting comments and pictures on their travels and who they meet along the way on Twitter. The Cuban Foreign Ministry also has issued press releases on the most significant trips.

During his Tampa Bay trip, Cabañas tweeted often, including a picture of a sign advertising Cuban Mojitos with a caption expressing hope that some day Cuban cigars and rum might be sold in the U.S.

Cabañas isn’t the only Cuban diplomat racking up frequent flier miles.

So far this year, Miguel Fraga, a first secretary at the embassy, has visited Montana, Pennsylvania, and the Boston area, where he gave talks at Boston University, Harvard’s Kennedy School, and Northeastern University. He also paid calls on Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons and met with Mayor Joe Curtatone of Somerville, Mass.

Not everyone approves of the Cuban diplomats’ travels.

Before Fraga’s Montana trip, Frank Calzon, of the Center for a Free Cuba, sent a letter to Cuban-American members of Congress objecting to Fraga’s visit to Montana State University and a proclamation issued by the mayor of Bozeman urging residents to attend Fraga’s public appearances to “exchange ideas and support additional ways such as citizen diplomacy to create mutually-beneficial relations between the people of our City and with the people of Cuba so that all from both nations can trade and travel freely.”

“While Raúl Castro’s ‘diplomat’ is wined and dined at an American university where he will engage in an exercise of communist disinformation, no American diplomat is scheduled to speak at Cuban universities on U.S.-Cuba relations and President Trump’s foreign policy,” Calzon wrote. He pointed out that Trump had said relations with Havana should be based on reciprocity.

The Cuban Foreign Ministry said that Fraga’s appearances in Helena and Bozeman were attended by “roughly 800 people.” Fraga also met with Gov. Steve Bullock and other state officials. After appearing at the Montana capitol building, Fraga tweeted: “Proud to see the ovation to Cuba” with a picture of legislators on their feet.

“It reflects a broad interest across the country of opening up trade, travel and cultural exchanges with Cuba,” said Williams. “The reaction has often been standing-room-only whether it’s a chamber of commerce or a farm bureau.”

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi