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April 29, 2016

 

SUNY Cortland symposium unites US, Cuba

CohenJoe McIntyre/staff photographer
Former U.S. Defense Secretary and Sen. William Cohen addresses the audience gathered at SUNY Cortland’s Sperry Center Thursday. Cohen said countries always need to keep open a line of communication, noting that sports can serve as a unifying force. “There are things we are still going to disagree about. There are things that will still divide us, but let’s see if we can find things that can unite us,” he said.

By NICK GRAZIANO
Staff Reporter
ngraziano@cortlandstandard.net

History was made on Thursday at SUNY Cortland, as the first major symposium on U.S.-Cuba relations since President Barack Obama visited Cuba in March was hosted at the college.
William Cohen, former secretary of defense during the Clinton Administration, served as keynote speaker.
More than eighty people — faculty members, students, local residents — congregated into the Sperry Center’s lecture hall before the start of the four-session symposium to hear a variety of expert panelists discuss a range of topics, from politics to baseball.
The latter being the overriding topic of the event, which was sponsored by the Caribbean Baseball Initiative, a consortium of baseball executives that hope to bridge U.S.-Cuba relations using the sport. Jordan Kobritz, a professor at SUNY Cortland and the school’s chairman of the Sport Management Department, is an executive of the initiative and helped organize the symposium.
“It’s exceeded my expectations, and I had high expectations,” Kobritz said after the first session ended.
Through a number of connections, Kobritz was able to bring in notable professionals to discuss baseball diplomacy, business opportunities, politics and growth in academics between Cuba and the United States.
Cohen gave a few anecdotes about his time working in politics and playing sports. At first, the stories seemed off track, given what the event was about, but he concluded with the point that countries need to always keep a line of communication and sports can act as a unifying force.
“To take something (baseball) that is so much of our national pastime in America, and Cuba, and say, ‘There are things we are still going to disagree about. There are things that will still divide us, but let’s see if we can find things that can unite us,’ is the brilliance of what the Initiative is trying to do,” Cohen said.
But baseball wasn’t the only subject covered. The first session dealt with the politics of U.S. and Cuba’s relationship, with Miguel Fraga, first secretary for the Embassy of Cuba, beginning the talk by asking, ‘What do you know about Cuba?”
“People believe they know about Cuba because they know about the Bay of Pigs,” Fraga said during the panel discussion. “They know about the Cuban Missile Crisis. And Cuba is more than that.”
Cuba is eager for more engagement with the United States, especially the import and export of foods. President Barack Obama’s opening of communications with Cuba is a good start to that, but the biggest changes need to come from Congress in approving deals between the two countries, Fraga said.
The United States is still learning a lot about Cuba and the relationship between the two has a long way to go, said Mark Wells, director of the Office of Cuban Affairs for the U.S. State Department. But he said there is slow progress as the United States began allowing the export of coffee from Cuba to this country on April 22.
The talk of business relationships continued into the next session with a few more notable panelists, such as Marc Grossman, former ambassador to Turkey, Venezuela and Zambia. He was joined by two entrepreneurs, Andrew Macdonald, president of Biopower SA and CEO of Havana Energy, and Micho Spring, former deputy mayor of Boston. They discussed how many businesses — telecommunications, tourism, medical and agriculture — are waiting for the opportunity to enter Cuba.
Their session was followed by baseball diplomacy, moderated by ESPN Deportes’ reporter Jorge Morejon. The talk furthered the discussion of how baseball could help build the bridge between Cuba and the U.S.
Michael Vela, a freshman history major at SUNY Cortland, said as a baseball player he was attracted to the baseball aspect of the talk, but he has also always been interested in visiting Cuba, so it was interesting to learn about the country’s current relationship with the U.S.
Student interest in Cuban relations is what SUNY Cortland President Erik Bitterbaum likes to see as he hopes the symposium will be the start of a relationship with SUNY Cortland and Cuba.
“I see it (U.S.-Cuban relationship), not just an opportunity for people to share knowledge, but a real opportunity for our students, in the future, to do internships (in Cuba) and the exchange of faculty and staff (between SUNY Cortland and Cuban universities). So I’m very excited,” Bitterbaum said.

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