PORTLAND, Maine - A 21-person delegation hoping to encourage economic development and cultural understanding between Maine and Cuba is scheduled to leave Friday for the tiny island nation.
The weeklong trip was organized by the Maine-Cuba Connection, a group of community and business leaders who support expanded political, academic, cultural and trade relations with Cuba.
Members of the delegation include a former Maine governor, a former U.S. Senate candidate and local business and education leaders.
They hope to discuss mutual concerns with Cuban President Fidel Castro despite the U.S. trade embargo that has been in effect for more than 40 years. But the focus of this visit will not be to promote lifting the embargo, organizers said.
“Ours is a much more modest goal than to challenge the embargo,” said Henry Amoroso, an education professor at the University of Southern Maine. “When Americans actually go and see Cuba for themselves, stereotypes are broken down. We’re going there to build awareness and make contacts.”
The Maine delegation will include former governor Kenneth Curtis and former U.S. Senate candidate Chellie Pingree.
Others making the trip include University of Southern Maine President Richard Pattenaude and Juan Perez-Febles, a Cuban-American who lives in Maine and will be returning home for the first time in 42 years.
Because U.S. residents are prohibited from visiting Cuba, the delegates will travel under the University of Southern Maine’s official educational license.
Delegates will meet with scientists, artists, economists, tourism officials and the president of the University of Havana.
They will visit schools, health care facilities, research labs, a tobacco farm and a cigar factory. And they will take in various theater, music and dance performances, as well as a baseball game.
“I hope this is the first of many trips and that Maine can play an integral role in opening up trade and normalizing relations with Cuba,” said Rachel Talbot Ross, a trip organizer who is director of equal opportunity hiring and multicultural affairs for the city of Portland.
The trade embargo was softened in 2000, when Congress allowed American companies to sell food and medicine to Cuba for cash.
In 2001, Maine became one of only two states that has passed a resolution urging Congress to lift sanctions and normalize trade relations with Cuba. Maine now sells apples, brown eggs, broccoli and potatoes to Cuba.
Perez-Febles, who came to the United States in 1961, hopes the state will support a formal trade mission to Cuba in the future.
Now 58, the Cape Elizabeth resident is director of migrant and immigrant services for the Maine Department of Labor.
He will travel as the delegation’s interpreter, and will stay in Cuba for an extra week to visit his home town of Cardenas, where he grew up on a small sugar cane farm.
“The embargo has failed,” Perez-Febles said. “It only hurts the common people of Cuba. ... By us going down there, it lets the Cuban government know that Maine is interested in improving relations and laying a foundation for working together after Castro’s gone.”