Legislature

Capitol Ideas: Iowa lawmakers open Cuban doors

An exchange of life lessons is possible, lawmaker says

The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)
The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)

CEDAR RAPIDS — After visiting Cuba back in January, State Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt returned with a refreshed appreciation for democracy.

And toilet paper.

Running-Marquardt, a Cedar Rapids Democrat, and Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center, who also visited the island nation 90 miles off the Florida coast, recommend President Barack Obama take his own supply when visits Cuba later this month.”

“Woody,” Sodders explained.

It’s more than toilet paper that Cubans want, Running-Marquardt said, and that’s what President and Michelle Obama will pursue during their visit Monday and Tuesday.

“There are significant trade opportunities in agriculture and manufacturing benefiting the people of Iowa and Cuba,” she said. Cubans are hungry for investment in information technology and manufacturing, for example.

And Cubans have something to offer in return not only in the way of markets for Iowa-grown agricultural commodities and machinery.

“They’re very innovative because they’ve had to do so much with so little,” Running-Marquardt said, adding that the Cubans she met “could relate with our Iowa thriftiness and hard-work ethic.”

Even under those conditions, the Cubans have a health care system that impressed Running-Marquardt, who was elected to a west-side House district in 2009.

Sodders agreed that health care was one of the areas of Cuban life that might offer lessons for Iowa. Cuba has a low infant mortality rate and many Cubans live into their late 70s. He and Running-Marquardt attribute that, in part, to Cuba’s anytime health care system.

Running-Marquardt and Sodders came back from their January trip optimistic there are opportunities for both Iowans and Cubans if the relationship is developed.

“President Obama’s trip has the potential to move both our countries forward in critical policy areas such as economic development and security,” Running-Marquardt said.

Plenty of others share her interest in opening up relations with Cuba. Twenty-six people representing agriculture, education, feed, energy, legal, infrastructure, chemicals and equipment participated in the January trip.

Representatives of Meskwaki Inc., the economic development arms of the Meskwaki Settlement near Tama-Toledo, explored the possibility of building a hotel in Cuba as well as being a distributors of Cuban cigars and other products. There also is a good deal of interest in developing wind and solar energy potential, Sodders said.

Among them were POET Nutrition, Diamond V from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Pork Producers, Iowa Corn Growers, ACT Inc., the Iowa Farm Bureau, Polo Custom Products of Monticello, Iowa Economic Development Authority and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

Former Iowa governor and now U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who will accompany Obama on the Cuba, noted that agriculture has often “served as a bridge to foster cooperation.”

In Cuba’s case, there’s also “baseball diplomacy.” Plans call for Obama to attend an exhibition game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays, only the second such game played on Cuban soil since the Cold War.

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Running-Marquardt finds that encouraging because it also speaks to the common interests of Iowans and Cubans.

“While there are decades of issues to work through, I’m encouraged we are opening the lines of communication and diplomacy by building a foundation based on the things we have in common and hold dear, such as God, family and even baseball,” she said.

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