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.