Former Minnesota Twins star Tony Oliva today became the face of Cuba on the floor of the Minnesota House, as lawmakers asked Congress to normalize trade relations with his native country.
"I'd like us all to express our gratitude to former Twins member Tony Oliva who is here today," said Representative Phyllis Kahn as she introduced the charismatic ball player, who received a standing ovation.
During the brief debate, Representative Al Juhnke of Willmar spoke in support of a resolution urging the US Congress to restore normal trade with the island nation south of Florida.
"Out of that nearly 15 million people, 75 percent of that population was born after 1958," Juhnke said, in reference to the revolution that put Fidel Castro into power and altered the course of Cuba's relationship with America and exiles living here.
"This was not, and is not, their conflict. This is a conflict of political wills between Washington, Cuba and Florida."
Juhnke spoke fondly of the Cubans he met on a recent trade mission he took part in, sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The US has embargoed trade with Cuba since 1960, when Castro nationalized US-owned industries and became a Soviet ally.
Juhnke noted that current rules allow Minnesota to sell $20 million worth of medical and agricultural products each year, but is not allowed to import anything from Cuba.
"Those people is what this about," he said, "Being able to have Americans travel freely and Cubans travel to America freely, being able to exchange goods and services; bring in pineapples and coconuts and tomatoes in the winter and send them soybeans and DDG's and yes, Spam!"
DDG's are a reference to distillers' grains, a high quality feed which is a byproduct of the ethanol brewing process.
Republican Joe Hoppe of Chaska cited the hypocrisy of voting for free trade with Cuba, at the same time Democrats nationally are delaying a free-trade agreement with Columbia.
"I think we're on somewhat questionable grounds here as the legislature in the state of Minnesota, urging Congress to do anything," Hoppe remarked.
"But as long as we're urging Congress to talk about normalizing trade relations with Cuba, I can only assume them if I were to have a resolution drafted urging Congress to pass a free trade agreement with Columbia that you'd be in full support of that?"
Kahn shot back, "I'd be very happy to put Cuba in the same status that Columbia's in right now."
The resolution passed on a tally of 86 to 9, with 39 legislators choosing not to vote at all. That vote came after Minority Leader Marty Seifert asked if rules allowed members to choose not to vote, and yet not be counted as absent.
House Speaker Margaret Kelliher assured Seifert that rules allowed the "non-votes" to not be recorded in the official Journal of the House.
Copyright 2008 by KARE. All rights reserved.