Maine advocates for ending Cuban trade embargo praise diplomatic breakthrough

Posted Dec. 17, 2014, at 6:03 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 17, 2014, at 6:44 p.m.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — It was 2006 and the Brunswick-Trinidad Sister City Association had days of unforgettable events arranged, advertised and ready to roll. But as the organization’s members have come to expect, international politics scuttled the plan.

The association and other organizations had planned for famed Cuban painter Elio Vilva to travel from Cuba to Maine to launch an art show at Bowdoin College. They planned for him to visit schools in the area and attend local social functions to talk about his craft, including a lecture at the Maine College of Art in Portland.

“We had all kinds of things planned for him,” said Genie Wheelwright, a senior lecturer of romance languages at Bowdoin College who was part of the sister-city organization at the time. “In the end, it was our own government who wouldn’t give him a visa to come. It was very discouraging for us when it just became apparent at the last minute that he wasn’t going to come at all.”

Many of the organization’s efforts to connect with people in Cuba — including hurricane relief to Trinidad after Hurricane Dennis destroyed much of the island nation’s second largest city in 2005 — had to circumvent U.S. government restrictions. While Cuba could not send artists to Maine, Wheelwright and other members of the sister-city group were prohibited by U.S. government restrictions from sending food and clothing to hurricane-ravaged Cubans. The best they could do was give money to religious or international organizations in hopes that it would translate to humanitarian aid for the people of Trinidad.

Now, those barriers might be coming down.

Wednesday’s announcement by President Barack Obama that the U.S. would begin work to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba 50 years after they were severed amid Cold War hostilities came as welcome news to Wheelwright and other Mainers who have worked for years to foster goodwill between Cuba and the U.S. — and to convince political leaders that half a century of antagonism benefited neither country.

“It really blows my mind,” said Wheelwright. “It’s incredible. It’s something I’ve been waiting for for years and years. I’d hoped Obama would have done it earlier in his administration.”

Stephen Burke of Warren, a co-founder of the Maine-based organization Let Cuba Live, also celebrated Wednesday’s announcement — and agreed that more work remains.

“It’s not the end of the embargo,” Burke said. “That’s what has to happen. But this is one of the most hopeful things that has happened. But [ending the embargo] is hard to do because that’s not in Obama’s power … but that still looks like it’s beginning to be a possibility.”

Another Mainer with a keen interest in Wednesday’s development is former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, who led a controversial trade mission to Havana, Cuba, in 2005. Baldacci said Wednesday that the trip focused mostly on agriculture and forestry and how Maine might supply lumber, pulp, potatoes and other goods to the communist country.

“Cuba’s got 11 million people, and [Wednesday’s announcement] is a good first step,” said Baldacci. “I would expect to see the agriculture and forestry sectors to really start seeing opportunities to possibly build on this.”

Baldacci said there was one aspect of his trip that he will never forget: seeing a monument to the USS Maine in a major square in Havana. The Maine was a U.S. Navy warship that sank in Havana Harbor in February 1898, drowning 260 crew members. The cause of the disaster was never determined, but U.S. newspaper reports attributing it to Spanish treachery set in motion a series of events that led to a U.S. declaration of war against Spain.

“In terms of world politics, certainly the state of Maine is still very prominent in that region,” said Baldacci. “[Reopening diplomatic relations] certainly is something that we could use as a foundation for furthering relationships.”

BDN staff writer Beth Brogan contributed to this report.

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