Cuban Ambassador José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez. Photo by Larry Luxner.

Cabanas photoWith Fidel Castro gone and Donald Trump headed to the White House, these have not been easy times for José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez, who arrived in Washington in 2012 as chief of the Cuban Interests Section and has been Cuba’s ambassador since Sept. 17, 2015. Here are excerpts from our interview with Cuba’s top diplomat in the United States.

Cuba Trade: How do you expect U.S.-Cuba relations will fare under President Trump?

Cabañas Rodríguez: Technically speaking, any president, whoever it is, can reverse any executive action taken by the previous president. If we take one subject, let’s say travel, companies are involved now that weren’t involved before. Remember that a few years ago, when tourism arrivals were not even comparable, a few politicians from South Florida essentially tried to reverse the advances, but politically speaking, they couldn’t deliver because the majority of South Florida’s population now supports travel to Cuba.

Cuba Trade: Did the restoration of bilateral relations after 50 years of hostility come as a surprise to you?

Cabañas Rodríguez: It was Dec. 17, 2014, when both President Obama and President Raúl Castro made the announcement at noon. They surprised everybody. We were a little bit surprised too, as we were not involved in the secret negotiations.

Cuba Trade: In the two years since that announcement, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen as ambassador?

Cabañas Rodríguez: At the personal level, the most important change in the last two years is that we have been able to talk to the United States with respect and reciprocity. Before that, we were only talking with the State Department. Now we talk with the departments of energy, education, transportation. You name it. There were also restrictions on our movement. We had to not only notify the State Department of our travel plans but also ask for permission. And in my case, that permission was not always given. And during the Bush administration, permissions were not even requested; our diplomats stayed inside the Beltway all the time.

Cuba Trade: Do you expect Donald Trump to follow through with his campaign threats to close down your embassy as well as the U.S. Embassy in Havana?

Cabañas Rodríguez: We are not in the business of speculating what could happen. We’ve been through this process 12 times. We’re used to it.

Cuba Trade: In November, direct commercial flights began between major U.S. cities and Havana, while U.S. travel to Cuba has increased dramatically. What other changes are in the works?

Cabañas Rodríguez: We will sign a memorandum of understanding on law enforcement. It’s a conversation that encompasses 12 U.S. agencies and several Cuban institutions. There are now three contracts for management of Cuban hotels, and we’re now waiting for a fourth [U.S.] license. There’s also an MOU on health care. What we can do in health together is endless. Some people think we’re moving too slow; others think we’re too fast. But for me, the core issue is the way we have been able to talk with respect.

Cuba Trade: This year, for the first time, the United States abstained on a UN resolution condemning the U.S. embargo against Cuba. How significant is that?

Cabañas Rodríguez: For years, the U.S. has maintained perfectly good ties with many countries that don’t have elections and lack human rights. Some of these countries not only don’t have freedom of the press, they don’t have press at all, and you’re not concerned about that. When you talk about foreign policy, you have to be consistent. For all those years, we have not exactly been a partner of the United States. Our market was open to any product coming from the U.S., but we never had the capacity to play as an equal.

Cuba Trade: What about the influence of hardline exile groups in South Florida?

Cabañas Rodríguez: Miami is different than it was in the ’60s and ’70s. As head of the consular services, I visited Miami the same way I visited Madrid, and I’ve witnessed how Miami has changed. I have many friends there from those years. We have so much back and forth now, with cultural exchanges, university exchanges and people-to-people travel. Many Cuban-Americans are now legal advisors for companies trying to do business in Cuba. We have to go by statistics. You have seen how Cuban-Americans vote, and what they think about the embargo and bilateral ties with Cuba. They’re pretty similar to what average Americans think. And among those 35 and younger, the numbers are even more pronounced. So if that’s what the majority thinks, why don’t politicians go along?

Cuba Trade: What advice do you give U.S. companies hoping do business with Cuba?

Cabañas Rodríguez: American companies feel they’re missing out. All ports in the southeastern U.S. are looking to Mariel as an opportunity. Mariel is not a dream; in roughly three years, we went from a plan to a reality. The Panamanians finished the expansion of their canal and now post-Panamax ships call at U.S. ports. All of them are eager to do business with Mariel and to invest in the economic zone surrounding Mariel. How would you explain to all those people that they cannot do business with us?

Cuba Trade: Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., is partnering with Cuba’s Center of Molecular Immunology to develop a therapeutic lung cancer vaccine. What other Cuban biotech breakthroughs could benefit U.S. patients?

Cabañas Rodríguez: After a diagnosis in Cuba, such patients live 10 to 12 years with a good quality of life. In the U.S., it’s only five years. We are also trying to reach a deal with the U.S. to sell a product called Heberprot-P to fight diabetes. You have 100,000 amputations a year because of diabetes, but in Cuba, we have stopped 73 percent of those amputations. What politician would tell 100,000 patients that he wants to reverse this progress? How would he explain that to the families?

Cuba Trade: Any final words on the future of bilateral relations?

Cabañas Rodríguez: We are born optimists, even under the toughest circumstances. During an early 1990s visit to the U.S., an economics professor told me we were going downhill, that we had no future. My response to that respected professor was this: How do you measure Cuban pride, or the way our young people smile or the way we dance? If we didn’t have the embargo in place, imagine all the things we’d be able to do.