The wild applause March 22 at Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano was not for U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, although he attended the baseball game that day between the Cuban nationals and Tampa Bay Rays. The tens of thousands were applauding President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro for reopening relations between the United States and Cuba after more than a half-century of Cold War chill.
But it was McGovern who did much to lay the groundwork for this reunion.
He first visited Cuba in 1979 and has carried the torch for normalized relations as a major foreign policy initiative throughout his 20 years as a Worcester-based congressman.
There are still hurdles to overcome. The Republican congress has been cool to agreeing to any substantive changes, such as lifting the U.S. trade embargo. Still, in all, McGovern’s most recent trip to Cuba was a triumphant one and he is excited about the benefits to the United States that would result from having Cuba as a robust trading partner.
“For years I’ve advocated a different approach and at long last it’s happening,” McGovern told the Sun last week in an interview. “I think it’s good news for the Cuban people and good news for the people of the United States. Now the challenge is to get Congress to do its part, which is to lift the travel restrictions and lift the economic embargo.”
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“The biggest obstacle right now is that we can’t get the speaker of the House [Paul Ryan] and Senate majority leader [Mitch McConnell] to allow us to debate it and vote on it,” he said. “I think there are a majority of Democrats and Republicans who would vote to lift the travel restrictions today. I don’t know where the votes are on the embargo, but I think it’s close.
“They all complain about the lack of democracy in Cuba. I’m concerned about the lack of democracy in Congress.
“I’m just asking for a debate and a vote. That’s what you do in democracies. They have frustrated that effort time and time again. We’re going to see if we can get around their obstructionism when the appropriations bills come up and find a way under a process that is traditionally open, to try and force a vote on this.”
McGovern said a guiding principle should be that the United States not restrict the travel of its own citizens. “People can travel to Russia. They can travel to China. You can travel to almost anyplace in the world but Cuba.”
The benefits to Massachusetts are many, he argues: cultural exchanges, academic exchanges, and a willing trading partner that could get from the United States what it now has to import from Russia and China, among others.
“Cuba over the years has invested greatly in their medical research and biotech industry,” he said. “We have a very aggressive medical research and biotech industry in Massachusetts. There are opportunities for collaborations where we can build upon each other’s research and maybe come up with some breakthroughs in terms of treating or curing diseases.”
Cuba has developed a drug [Heberprot-P, available in 26 countries] that has been successful in treating diabetes. “A lot of Europeans rely on it. Canadians rely on it. But we can’t have access to it because of our crazy laws. Some of us for years have been trying to get the FDA to figure out how we can help people take advantage of it.”
“It just makes sense that engagement is better than isolation. We’ve had over 50 years of a failed policy. It’s time to try something new and Congress ought to get out of the way and support the president on this,” he said.
“The last president to step foot on Cuban soil was Calvin Coolidge [in 1928], so this is a big deal for the Cuban people,” McGovern said.
“I think they were not only excited to see President Obama and express their gratitude for his approach to Cuba, but I think they believe maybe this is a beginning of a new chapter where in addition to better relations between the two countries that relationship will lead to an improvement in their lives.”
[Editor’s note: It appears public sentiment is rapidly shifting in post-Obama Cuba.]
“I didn’t know whether I would still be on this planet when a president of the United States would visit Cuba, but that has happened and I think there is lots of potential as a result of that,” he said.
McGovern’s trips to Cuba over the years have also seen him meeting with former President Fidel Castro. One of the more interesting and newsmaking trips involved rescuing reams of documents from Ernest Hemingway’s house – papers that had been rotting in a basement for more than 40 years after the writer’s death.
McGovern’s interest in the matter helped launch a U.S.-Cuban effort to preserve and digitize Hemingway’s writings and personal effects including bar bills, bullfighting tickets and personal notes.
Thousands of digital scans are now located at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, which houses the largest Hemingway collection in the world, including more than 90 percent of the Nobel Prize-winning author’s manuscripts. McGovern said Hemingway’s Cuban house was more interesting and contained more historically relevant material than his house in Key West, Florida.
McGovern had been in a meeting with Obama about two years ago with a handful of other congressmen and senators who urged the president to not allow the opportunity to normalize relations pass him by.
“We said, ‘You’re running out of time in your administration and if this is going to happen you’re going to have to move quickly.’ ” The discussion included a possible trade of captives accused of being spies.
“We also knew of a CIA asset who had been detained who could be part of the exchange. At that meeting, the president pushed back pretty hard. I was not convinced when we left that meeting that he was on board.
“A few months later I got a call from [Vice President] Joe Biden telling me he wanted me to go to Andrews Air Force Base the next day to meet Alan Gross (the accused spy) because they had negotiated an exchange and in addition to that they were moving toward normalizing diplomatic relations.”
McGovern said it is important for American political hardliners to know that Cuban hardliners are not too happy about the prospect of normalization either. Referring to the sometimes raucous behavior of American college students on vacation, he said: “I’ve always said that the two words in the English language that the hardliners in Cuba fear the most are Spring Break.”