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Top Cuban diplomat visits Sonoma State University

Even with President Barack Obama’s recent move to restore ties with Cuba after a half-century of hostility and rivalry, a diplomat from the small Caribbean country visiting Sonoma County on Monday said much more needs to be done to normalize relations between the two nations.

“We’re losing an opportunity right now because the embargo is there,” said Miguel Fraga, the first secretary of the newly opened Cuban Embassy in Washington.

Fraga called for a lift on the travel and trade embargo while on a visit Monday to Sonoma State University, where he kicked off his weeklong tour of the Bay Area.

He argued that not only would Cubans benefit from lifting the embargo, but so would Americans.

They would be able to travel to Cuba without a special license, do business, export agricultural products and seek cutting-edge medical treatment on the island, he said.

“If we don’t change the laws in the middle, everything can be changed in November,” he said about U.S.-Cuba policies. “We need Congress to make the real change.”

“That’s going to come with your help,” he told the audience during his lecture.

Nearly 100 people attended Fraga’s speech, and many of them were students like sociology majors Jessica Mena Flores and Sheryl Kumar, both juniors, who wanted to learn more about Cuba and its history with the United States.

“Our generation needs to be more informed about these issues,” said Kumar, 20.

Mena, 21, who was taking notes, said students are lucky to have a top Cuban diplomat talk to them and address their questions.

Fraga said he wanted to paint Cuba in a more positive light than Americans might be used to. He boasted about Cubans’ long life expectancy and 100 percent literacy rate. He said 50,000 Cuban health workers are providing medical services abroad, helping fight Ebola and other diseases in places such as Africa.

“This is not Cuban propaganda,” he said at the beginning of the lecture. “If you don’t believe me, go to Cuba.”

Fraga’s visit is timely, with Obama’s upcoming visit to Cuba later this month, said Peter Phillips, an SSU sociology professor who helped organize the event along with Project Censored, the Media Freedom Foundation and SSU’s Sociology Social Justice and Activism Club.

“It’s a rare event and a rare opportunity to meet somebody from the Cuban government who is from the new generation of Cuban communists,” said Phillips, who has visited the country twice - once with a group of students and another time with journalists.

Phillips argued that many Americans are misinformed about Cuba and often provided a one-sided view of the country.

“There is a really large misunderstanding of what Cuba is like today,” he said. While it’s a communist country and different than the U.S., he added, “It’s not the draconian, ‘everybody wants to get out’ (government) that people describe.”

Fraga hoped to clear up some of what he called “misinformation” in his lecture while educating people about the history between the two nations and the impact of the recent policy change.

While visiting Seattle last week, he talked about Cuba preparing itself for American businesses.

Fraga, who said he was welcomed onto the California State Senate floor on Monday - the first Cuban diplomat invited there in five decades - plans similar discussions later this week on other Bay Area college campuses, including San Francisco State University and College of Marin.

“Now is the moment to change things,” he told the audience. “We don’t want to wait another 50 years.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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