MINNEAPOLIS -- Republican Tom Emmer represents one of the most conservative congressional districts in Minnesota, and yet he's taking the lead on lifting the trade embargo on Cuba.
Rep. Emmer said conversations he had with average Cubans on a visit to Havana last June convinced him the people in that nation are more than ready to embrace their neighbors to the north.
"This is about the Cuban people," Emmer told KARE. "We should Allow Americans and Cubans to start to rebuild their relationship and allow American business to start investing in Cuba."
He found that some small businesses are beginning to thrive in that island nation, 90 miles off the south coast of Florida, and he believes it's essential for the United States to have a larger presence there in the coming years as political power shifts away from the Castro family.
The embargo has been in place since October of 1960. And while exceptions created in the 1990's allowed Minnesota companies to sell agricultural and medical products in Cuba, Emmer says scrapping the entire embargo would allow that Caribbean nation to flourish.
"The purpose of the embargo was to undermine the Castro Regime so that the Cuban people could once again self-determine, could govern themselves," Emmer explained. "It hasn't worked."
He's heard from opponents who say that lifting the embargo will only strengthen the Castro's, but he sees it differently.
"Pope John Paul John II was the first one to say that an embargo typically hurts the people it's intended to help the most, and he went further to say it's hardest on the poor."
Emmer occupies the 6th District seat previously held by Tea Party star Michele Bachmann, who opposed normalizing relations with Cuba.
But Emmer said his position on the Agriculture Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee in the US House had given him insight into how Cuba is both economically and strategically important to the region.
Some Cuban Americans in Minnesota are pleasantly surprised to see Emmer take the lead on the issue.
"I suspect that Tom Emmer and I have differing views on lots of issues nationally and in Minnesota, but on this one I happen to agree very much with what he's doing," Cristine Almeida, a St.Paul Attorney whose parents and siblings were born in Cuba.
"Our relatives who still live in Cuba -- I have an aunt and two cousins there -- are really an example of people who have suffered because of the embargo. I don't really know if we've hurt the Castro's at all, but we absolutely have hurt the people who live there."
Almeida's parents and four older siblings fled Cuba as Fidel Castro's revolution took hold, fearing their property would be seized. It was taken by the Cuban government, and on a recent trip to Cuba Almeida found her parent's home is now a restaurant.
But she also found the infrastructure crumbling in places, and people struggling to survive.
"The people are so warm, so friendly, and have such a work ethic, but they're trapped in an environment that is decades old without the ability to improve their own situation. And that part of it is absolutely tragic."
Emmer said he respects families who still feel the pain of losing loved ones and property in the Cuban Revolution. And he acknowledges the Castro Regime has a record of human rights violations when it comes to political dissidents.
But he believes the US will still be able to press Cuba on those issues, even without the trade restrictions in place.
"These issues are real, but the discussion doesn't stop on those issues just because you lift the embargo."