Minnesota Orchestra Goes to Cuba This Week!

MN OrchestraAs discussed in a prior post, this February the Minnesota Orchestra announced that it would be playing two concerts in Havana, Cuba on May 15 and 16. At the invitation of the Cuban Ministry of Culture, Music Director Osmo Vänskä and the Orchestra will play Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy with the Cuban National Choir and Cuban pianist Frank Fernandez as well as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Eroica. In addition, on the 15th they will play Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture,” and on the 16th Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances” from West Side Story and Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

According to a recent article in Minnesota’s StarTribune newspaper, [1] this past January the Orchestra’s president, Kevin Smith, thought it would be great if the Orchestra could be the first U.S. ensemble to go to Cuba after the December 17th announcement of rapprochement between the U.S. and the island nation. Smith immediately called Minnesota’s U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar and asked for help in pursing this idea. She, of course, said yes with this comment: “This trip is an example of the type of relationship we want to continue building between our people. Cubans are looking forward to more opportunities to interact with Americans.” [2]

Smith then asked the Orchestra’s musicians if they would give up a scheduled week of vacation in May in order to go to Cuba. They too said yes with enthusiasm. An Orchestra violinist, Aaron Janse, who was in a small advance group that went to Cuba in April, said, “We absolutely feel that we represent the state, the United States. We have a responsibility to be a bridge between the two countries. For us, as a community, to get this all together speaks volumes to where the Minnesota Orchestra is.”

Both concerts will be broadcast live by Minnesota Public Radio’s classical music stations (99.5 FM in the Twin Cities) on May 15 and 16 at 7:30 p.m. (CDT). Tune in.

The Orchestra also will visit a musical school and arts university and hold a joint rehearsal with a Cuban youth orchestra. The Minnesota Orchestra members will give small “Minnesota Orchestra” pins to people they meet. Presumably they will be wearing “Minnesota Twins” baseball caps as they travel around Havana. As former Minnesota Twins Cuban-American baseball player, Tony Oliva, has said, Cubans know about the Twins and their cap.

Accompanying the Orchestra on a chartered direct flight from the Twin Cities to Havana will be a group of board members and community supporters as “cultural ambassadors.” They will be led by board member, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, and her husband, Glen Nelson, who are paying for the trip. As a co-owner and former chairman of Carlson Companies, a global hotel company, Carlson Nelson is interested in business opportunities in Cuba for her company.

On a historical note, the Orchestra (then called the Minneapolis Symphony) in 1929 and 1930 performed in Havana, and one of its pieces on the first trip was Beethoven’s “Third Symphony,” which will be played again this weekend by the Orchestra. MPR News has a 1929 photograph of some of the Symphony members getting ready to board a ship in Havana after their first trip.

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[1] In addition to the StarTribune article, check out information about the trip on the Orchestra’s website and in a MPR News article.

[2] As discussed in prior posts, Senator Klobuchar is a strong advocate for U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. She is the author of the pending Senate bill to end the U.S. embargo of Cuba. She was a member of a U.S. Senate delegation that visited Cuba this February. She endorsed the formation of the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba that is being lead by Minnesota’s Cargill Incorporated.

U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba Sends Delegation to the Island

On March 1-4, the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba sent a delegation of 90-plus agricultural leaders to Cuba to meet with Cuban officials and farmers. [1]

Devry Boughner Vorwerk
Devry Boughner Vorwerk

In announcing the visit, the Coalition’s Chair, Devry Boughner Vorwerk of Minnesota-headquartered Cargill Incorporated, said it would be a “learning journey” to expand knowledge of Cuban agriculture. It will include meetings with Cuban business and government leaders, as well as interaction with Cuban farmers and agricultural cooperatives. The idea is to expand understanding of the Cuban agricultural economy. During the trip she said, “”The message we hope will get back to Washington is that we are a unifying voice that would like to see Congress act in 2015 and end the embargo.”

She also expressed a desire for a bilateral agricultural trading relationship with the U.S. importing such things as Cuban snuff, rum, cigars, coffee, sugar, seafood (lobster and shrimp) and encouraged a Cuban delegation of officials and farmers to visit the U.S. to explore those opportunities. Indeed, some believe that Cuba’s warm winter climate could enable Cuba to export tomatoes and other vegetables all across the eastern U.S. during the cold-weather months, along with its traditional crops.

On Monday the U.S. delegation met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez; Agriculture Minister, Julian González; Azcuba Business Group; the National Association of Small Farmers; and directors of other companies and agricultural cooperatives.

The next day the Americans visited farms and agricultural businesses in four provinces near Havana, including the El Trigal wholesale market, on the outskirts of the capital; the 30 de Noviembre Sugar Mill (Artemisa); the Heroes de Yaguajay Fruit and Vegetable Cooperative (Alquizar), and the tobacco cooperatives of Consolacion del Sur and Los Palacios (Pinar del Rio).

Significant U.S.-Cuba trade growth appears likely to come fastest in agriculture, the sector of the Cuban economy that has the deepest ties to the U.S. and that has been undergoing market-oriented reforms longer than any other on the island. After years of declining sales, the U.S. and mostly Republican states sold nearly $300 million of food to the island last year, primarily frozen chicken and soybean products, under a long-standing humanitarian exception to the U.S. embargo.

Such U.S. exports, however, have been hampered by U.S. sanctions limiting sales to a cash-only and barring U.S. banks from financing the sales. American trade officials and farmers are dreaming of dominating a food import market that could grow to $3 billion in coming years if Cuba’s economy improves.

The delegation included two former U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture (Democrat Mike Espy and Republican John Block); the marketing and development director for the Virginia Department of Agriculture; Missouri’s agriculture director and the spouse of its Governor, Jay Nixon, who was unable to go. Another member was Thomas Marten, an Illinois soybean farmer and the Zanesville Township GOP Committeeman. He observed, “As a Republican, I believe in trade for the betterment of all people. Prohibiting it is something that hurts us all.”

Afterwards, a Cuban researcher at the Center for Hemispheric Studies, University of Havana, Luis René Fernández, said that open trade with the U.S. is a matter of justice. Care, however, must be taken that the changes are not chaotic or overwhelmed by the U.S. interests.

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[1] A previous post described the January 8, 2015, launch of the Coalition. This post about their visit to the island is based upon the following sources: Thomas, Ag Coalition to lead trade trip to Cuba in March, Farm Futures (Feb. 20, 2015); Reuters, U.S. Agricultural Delegation Visits Cuba, Protests Embargo, N.Y. Times (Mar. 2, 2015); Cuba Hosts Delegation of 96 US Farm Sector Businesspeople, Havana Times (Mar. 2, 2015); Sosa, US farmers promote lifting the blockade on Cuba, Granma (Mar. 3, 2015); Miroff, Why Midwestern farmers want to break the Cuban embargo, Wash. Post (Mar. 3, 2015); U.S. agribusinessmen visiting Cuba call for end to embargo, FoxNewsLatino (Mar. 3, 2015); US Agriculture Organization Looks for Business Opportunities in Cuba, Escambray (Mar. 3, 2015); Weissenstein, Cuba looks north to US farmers for help with food crisis, Assoc. Press (Mar. 4, 2015); Sosa & Gomez, The fertile field for trade between US and Cuba, Granma (Mar. 5, 2015).