Interviewed by James DeChene
Representative Joseph E. Miro has represented the 22nd Rep District in the Pike Creek Valley since 1998. A former teacher, Mr. Miro serves on the House Appropriations Committee, Education Committee, Health & Human Development Committee and Joint Finance Committee.
After nearly five decades of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba following the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Obama and Raul Castro met at the Summit of the Americas in Panama last spring with plans to rebuild diplomatic relations.
Fast-forward a few months later to August 14, a date that marks the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Cuba, the travel ban has been officially lifted. Now Americans wishing to travel to Cuba will no longer require prior congressional approval. However, the trade embargo as a whole is still in effect, with the exception of a few items.
James DeChene and Delaware Business magazine had the opportunity to sit down with Rep. Joseph Miro to ask him about his thoughts on recent events as a Cuban immigrant.
James DeChene (JD): Being a Peter Pan child has had a defining influence on your life. Can you share some background on your experience coming to the US from Cuba?
Joe Miro (JM): As a result of the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy established by executive order a program called Pedro Pan or Peter Pan. It allowed families, who had children under the age of 16, to send their children to the US under the care of organizations like Catholic Charities. These organizations took in 14,342 Cuban children from late 1961 to about 1963.
In my case, I came here by myself, I am an only child. I was 13 ½, my dad had passed away and my mother and grandmother decided to send me to this country. I arrived in Florida at a camp called Camp Matecumbe. Only boys were housed there. I was there from March 29 through July of 1962. One day I was called to the camp office and told “Your time of relocation has come and you have a choice.” The choice was Albuquerque, NM or Wilmington, DE. I saw on the map behind the camp officer the word “Philadelphia,” I very quickly said, “I go here.” Well, it wasn’t Philadelphia, it was Wilmington. I knew Philadelphia from reading about the history of the US and of course, the Phillies. The Phillies had a AAA team in Cuba; I followed baseball as a kid. I came to Philadelphia then I was out to Wilmington in about three hours. I went to school at Salesianum for the first year and lived in a house on Broom Street with 21 other boys. I was there for a year and three months until my mother and grandmother came to this country.
JD: How difficult was it for your mother and grandmother to emigrate from Cuba?
JM: They were scheduled to leave early on October 23, 1962. The night before Kennedy declared the blockade of Cuba due to the missile issue. Their visa was cancelled and they did not have the opportunity to leave until May of 1963. The prisoners of the Bay of Pigs were being exchanged for boats full of medicine and supplies. My mother and grandmother came on the last boat, landing in Miami. They were sponsored by the Christ Our King Church. It was the best thing that could have happened to my family.
“There is a book called Waiting for Snow in Havana. It is the story of Pedro Pan. It could be translated into my story.” – Representative Joseph E. Miro
JD: What are your thoughts on opening trade relations with Cuba? What about the concerns with human rights violations?
JM: The embargo really served no purpose but to damage relations with the US. The people were the ones that were suffering, not the government. Every other country in Europe and throughout the world has some type of relationship with Cuba. I have visited Cuba twice and quite frankly, what you see there are the investments from the Italians, Germans, Canadians, and Spanish. The hotel chains and businesses that are operating are specifically in areas with tourism. The US companies have not been at the table, creating a disadvantage for Americans and American companies to really invest, prosper and do business with Cuba. I’m glad to see that the embargo is coming to an end.
Should there have been some type of prerequisite for human rights? I think that is something that should have been done because it’s a country where if you oppose the government, you’re going to end up in jail. There is no free election, there are no elections, period. Certainly I think that there should be some ties. By the way, we have significant trade with China, which has many human rights issues.
JD: Should there be a political change in Cuba before having trade relations take place?
I went to Cuba in 2007 under Governor Minner’s Administration to investigate possible trade opportunities. Even when the embargo was enforced, there were certain products that you could trade with Cuba; primarily agricultural products. As a result, we did sell some things to Cuba, however, it was very difficult to transact business.
On a personal level, I felt safe and moved freely. At least we thought we moved freely, maybe we were followed. We did not detect that. I returned three years ago with my entire family. I saw somewhat of a change from 2007. People had better clothing, a little more food and a few more businesses were opened by Cubans themselves in an attempt to bring tourism to those hotels and restaurants. Many of the old buildings had been retrofitted. However is was clear that we were not in a democracy by any means, we were a long way away from it. The government had a little more of a loose grip on the people.
JD: Recently Castro has said he felt the US owes Cuba reparations for the lost revenue due to the embargo. Do you see any sort of merit in this charge?
JM: Well there’s an easy answer. I think the government of Cuba needs to pay reparations for the American companies that they confiscated in 1959 – 1960. If we are going to talk about paying money, I think it is the Cuban government that has to pay the American companies for all the properties they took over.
JD: From your viewpoint, do you think the embargo has created a market for Delaware companies?
JM: I have been working with Secretary of State Jeff Bullock and with Rebecca Faber at the World Trade Center, to do a trade mission to Cuba. It will happen, if not this year then early the following year.
JD: Going forward without an embargo, do you see Delaware companies engaging in trade opportunities with Cuba?
Absolutely, there are many companies that see it as an opportunity. There is significant need for paint, glass, wood, construction material, as well as medicine. Agriculture is more secondary. They have been bringing pregnant cows in from Argentina and other South American countries to revitalize that industry. There is a great need for cars, auto parts, you name it. Quite frankly, the country is in bad shape; there is a lot of poverty. The question is: Does the Cuban government have money to pay for this? Their big export market is cigars and rum. Tourism is their real jewel. Companies that do business with Cuba will need assurance that they are going to get paid.
The Port of Wilmington should play a big role just based on our East Coast location alone. The real beneficiaries, of course, are the ports in Florida, New Orleans and Texas. That said, the Port of Wilmington has an opportunity here to expand trade opportunities with Cuba.
JD: Delaware is not Miami. As a Cuban American, why does your viewpoint differ on the embargo?
JM: I think you have a generational issue here, as well as a geographical issue. I’m a first generation immigrant. I came here very young and grew up in a different part of the country. I was educated in a different environment from the Cubans in Miami. It is a good thing for our American companies. I think in terms of the economy, opening doors and trying to get more business into an economy that needs it. It will help small business people, who in my opinion, are the backbone of the economy in Delaware. We need to help the small business people grow. If we open trade with Cuba, they will benefit the most.
by Matt Amis, Senior Communications Officer, Rodel Foundation
Ernie Dianastasis—perhaps more than ever—is eager to go back to school this fall.
The longtime business leader and education advocate serves as chairman of the Vision Coalition Leadership Team, a cadre of local influencers who work collaboratively and cooperatively to improve Delaware schools.
This month, the coalition releases Student Success 2025. Like its well-known predecessor, Vision 2015, Student Success 2025 is an ambitious 10-year plan designed to boost Delaware’s public education system to world-class status.
Delaware Business caught up with Dianastasis—who, when he’s not leading his CAI (Computer Aid, Inc.) global IT firm, also leads the Delaware Business Roundtable Education Committee—to talk about the plan and the vision for the future of Delaware schools.
Tell us about a little about Student Success 2025.
This is a 10-year vision for public education in Delaware. We started back in 2014 by asking a question: What are the skills and attributes that an educated Delawarean needs to have by the year 2025?—and worked backward from there to develop the strategies to achieve that vision. And we’re not just jumping straight to 2025—these are issues we can begin working on today.
The plan itself deals primarily with six core areas: quality early learning, personalized learning, postsecondary and career attainment, educator support, school funding, and governance. The thinking is, by aligning those six areas better, Delaware can build a more modern and seamless education system, and our kids can take advantage of that in numerous ways.
So whose vision is this, exactly?
The ideas in this report don’t come from me. They don’t come from the Department of Education. Over the last few years, our group talked and collaborated with more than 4,000 Delawareans—including 1,300 students. They reached out online, in surveys, at community meetings, cups of coffee—you name it. The people of Delaware told us where they think we need to go as a state. They told us their hopes for providing more social and emotional support for kids, and for more collaboration between families and schools. And the kids themselves said they wanted more real-life career experiences and flexibility in their school experience. We took the student input very seriously. They’re at the center of this whole thing.
We also called upon leading experts in Delaware, across the country, and around the world—to help inform our thinking.
This is a follow-up to Vision 2015. Did that plan work? Is this the sequel?
Vision 2015 came out in 2006, and since its release around 75 percent of its recommendations have been acted upon in Delaware. That includes higher academic standards overall, new investments in teacher prep programs, and huge increases in the number of children enrolled in high-quality early learning environments. We have more kids than ever taking and passing AP courses, taking foreign language immersion classes, applying to college, and participating in career pathways.
So, I’d say it has worked, but to be candid some things simply haven’t—like improvements to our funding system, and big shifts that we didn’t anticipate a decade ago, like the explosion of technology in our daily lives. When the community sees Student Success 2025, they will see that we looked to address those gaps and build on the foundation we started. There’s still so much more we can do to support our schools and our kids. We also need to remember that transforming a multi-century old system does not happen overnight. It is a multi-year journey with many phases. There is no finish line where we declare victory. Rather, it is a life-long commitment to excellence that we must all embrace.
What happens next? How do you transition the plan into action?
Well, we’ll officially release the report on September 16 at a special event at the Del Tech Dover campus, and from there, we’ll follow up with our Annual Conference on October 28, where we’ll try to reenergize Delawareans around these issues and keep the momentum going. From there, we’ll establish some dedicated implementation teams to dig in on putting these recommendations into practice. Some will be easier than others, and some of them are already underway. That said, at the end of the day, this is about results, so we are going to hold ourselves accountable by producing a report card on the progress we make every fall. We hope the Chamber and the community as a whole keeps the pressure on to make sure we collectively deliver on what we’ve promised. We all need to own this.
We haven’t seen a whole lot of harmony when it comes to education policy in Delaware lately. What makes this any different?
I think it goes back to the collaborative nature of the plan. At the end of the day, of course we will need political and legislative action to enact some of these recommendations. And we know the state is facing some major revenue issues. But the truth is, we aren’t all going to agree on everything. As a group, the coalition is committed to working on the 80 percent or more that we all agree on, and keep the work moving forward. We accept that there will be real disagreements on the margins, but we can’t let that slow us down.
And in fact, everyone in Delaware can play a part. You already have members of the business community energized around career pathways for students; you have all these wonderful family and community organizations providing support; you have school districts collaborating on things like personalized learning. There are already so many great things happening in pockets throughout Delaware, so our biggest challenge right now is connecting them all together across the state, and doing more of what works. Let’s focus on the things we already agree on, and work toward this vision for the future. It’s closer than we think.
For more info on Student Success 2025, visit www.visioncoalitionde.org.
By Emily Riley
Permits and paperwork is what most think of at the mention of Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. While those formalities are surely part of the DNREC outfit, newly appointed department secretary David Small wants you to know there’s far more education, policy and entrepreneurial initiatives at work for the First State. From the dynamic growth of Wilmington’s Riverfront destination to managing the state’s air and water quality, the corps of scientists and policy initiators at DNREC are hard at work keeping our state beautiful and environmentally (and economically) viable.
Secretary David Small had a few thoughts to share in regards to current work at DNREC:
What positions have you previously held with DNREC?
I served as acting secretary early in the Markell administration prior to arrival of former Secretary [Collin] O’Mara. For the past 15 years I served as deputy secretary, and prior to that I served as the executive assistant. I joined the agency in 1987 and was chief of the office of information and education, but prior to that, I was a journalist and editor in print media. I’m maybe a bit of an unlikely candidate to be secretary, but the nice thing about being chief of that office is that I had access to every nook and cranny and program and issue the department was dealing with, which has been a wonderful opportunity to learn about the agency.
How will your position as secretary expand on the work you’ve already done with DNREC?
I think having a working baseline knowledge of the agency has been an incredible asset to me – to know not only the issues but the people inside the agency and the challenges on the outside. I’ve come to know many of the regulated entities that we serve as customers and constituents, which has been very helpful to me because it’s given me insights that maybe other folks coming in from the outside haven’t had, so that’s definitely been one advantage.
What goals would you like to see accomplished during your tenure?
Water quality has been a huge priority for the department. Cleaning up the state’s water has been an ongoing effort, and it’s not going to happen overnight and it’s not something that we’re going to accomplish by regulation only. We live in an age where everyone’s attached to a handheld device, and we’re used to instant gratification – the environment doesn’t work that way, and we’ve got a long road ahead of us. Energy efficiency is another area where I think we’ve made good strides but there are still gains to me made there. The kilowatts and megawatts we don’t use are the best ones and the cheapest ones, so making those investments save consumers money and also put people to work.
The revamp of Wilmington’s Riverfront destination is certainly one of DNREC’s most visible achievements. Are there similar plans for other areas in the state?
The Riverfront development plan is our largest and most successful example of a Brownfield project. It was an area that had been previously used for heavily industrialized purposes that left a legacy of contamination. When former Gov. [Russell] Peterson and former University of Delaware Pres. [E. Arthur] Trabant shared their vision for the area, I’m not sure anybody could have imagined creating the economic engine in New Castle County that stands there today. I don’t know that we’ll ever rise to that scale again, but we strive for that “twofer” – repurposing and redeveloping an existing site and eliminating contamination in that area. Using this model, we have our sights set on places like Fort DuPont in Delaware City and Auburn Heights Preserve in Yorklyn, as well as a the Evraz Claymont Steel site, which presents an exciting and dynamic opportunity for commercial investment right along the Delaware River.
What will DNREC do to keep pace with advances in environmental engineering and technology?
Not surprisingly, and like many organizations, we’re aging. Fifty percent of our workforce is eligible for retirement, so our goal is to get the right people with the right skills to manage our agency into the future. We want to make sure that for our younger staff, they’re not only technically competent, but that we’re giving them the right skill sets to be effective managers for policy planning, human resource management and other areas. If we make these investments in our workforce, we can continue to make great strides over the coming years.
Beyond the paperwork and park fees, what is something Delawareans might not know about DNREC?
I would say there’s a lack of understanding or appreciation for all the responsibilities that the agency has. People know DNREC through a singular experience – getting a permit for an activity, buying their state park passes or gaining a surf permit to the drive-on beaches, but there’s really so much more that we do. We’re constantly trying to improve the air quality, protect public health through the quality of the drinking water, clean up contaminated sites, manage storm water and other continual goals. And it’s difficult to isolate these projects too. When you think about that environment and natural resources, you’re tugging on a thread that’s connected to so many other issues. It’s hard to manage them within individual programs, so what we try to do is connect the dots across our body of policies, which gives us a great advantage in trying to achieve those goals.
(This article was previously published in the 2015 July/August issue of Delaware Business magazine).
James DeChene is the Chamber's Senior Vice President of Government Affairs.