With the very novel yet successful idea to place an ice skating rink in downtown Mobile throughout the winter holidays this past season, many Mobilians who ventured to Cooper Riverside Park were greeted a number of appreciable sights. Nestled up to the busy Mobile River, the park offers views and sights both familiar and unfamiliar to quite a few. For natives, naval combat ships in various stages of development on the east side of the river have become a familiar sight, likewise the tugs and tankers making their way up and down the Mobile River.
However, unfamiliar to many may have been the large and (as you see when you step inside) very high-tech and appropriately shaped GulfQuest Maritime Museum. There is yet another sight, albeit much smaller, that I saw many walk by and stare at inquisitively, some even taking photographs of, but most likely without the slightest idea of its purpose or importance. What is it? A statue of the Frenchman Pierre Le Moyne Sieur D’Iberville.
D’Iberville, who played a crucial role founding Mobile, stands now forever in bronze, greeting those who travel as he once did — by sea — traversing waters that in a large way help define the identity of our fair city. Since 2002 the statue has stood majestically in Cooper Riverside Park, facing southeast, standing in a way that suggests the vastness and openness of the waters that lay beyond the horizon.
Whether that sight is familiar or not, perhaps a lesser-known fact is that a similar statue of D’Iberville stands some 600 miles southeast, where it faces west. Though out of each other’s sight, the two statues nevertheless face each other as a reminder of a past connection that quite possibly has the opportunity to be vibrantly renewed. The other statue’s location? Havana, Cuba.
Yes, Havana. The city where D’Iberville’s body was interred in 1706 has connections with our home here on the northern edge of the Gulf Coast. This week, as President Barack Obama becomes the first sitting U.S. president to visit Havana since 1928, hopes of resurrecting a more constructive and productive relationship between our two countries have come alive in the hearts and minds of many. This is definitely so for many in Mobile and throughout Alabama.
It should be. The Mobile-Cuba connection is long and deep. Up until the trade embargo was put in place, Havana was Mobile’s biggest trading partner. In fact, since the early 1700s, a very lucrative and vigorous trade existed between our city and Havana. The ties weren’t just economic, however. The sport that many feel is synonymous with the island nation — baseball — was introduced to Cuba by two young Cuban nationals who attended Spring Hill College in the late 1800s and took their newfound knowledge of the game back home, where it flourished.
There was much personal travel between the two cities as well. Up until the time of the travel and trade embargo, Havana was a favorite vacation destination, not just for many in our area but for those throughout the Southeast.
Over a week ago, President Obama loosened restrictions on travel to Cuba, now allowing Americans to take “people-to-people” trips to the island rather than only on group tours, which for many can be quite expensive. The move is expected to assist in demand for the coming commercial flights to Havana which will be offered beginning this summer to U.S. travelers. Carnival Cruise Lines has announced it will commence a Havana port of call in May of this year. Interest and excitement about being able to travel to Mobile’s once banned “Sister City” has become palpable.
Yet, it’s more than just cultural and travel ties that many want to see reinstated. Last October, Gov. Robert Bentley was one of nine governors who signed a letter to congressional leaders asking that they lift the trade embargo against Cuba. Along with expressing support for President Obama’s executive actions, the letter stated, “As governors of states across the United States, we write to share our support for an end to current trade sanctions levied against Cuba … Ending the embargo will create jobs here at home, especially in rural America, and will create new opportunities for U.S. agriculture … The benefits of fully opening Cuba to free market trading with the U.S. go beyond dollars and cents.”
Alabama’s agriculture, poultry and auto sectors are poised to benefit handsomely if the trade embargo is finally lifted. And of course, those products would all flow through the Port of Mobile.
Even with the benefits that would be realized locally, statewide and nationally — not to mention by the Cuban people themselves — there are still those who favor the status quo. The 55-year-old trade ban is getting hard to defend, though. In 2015 America did a total of $42 billion in trade with the socialist nation of Vietnam, a country we actually went to war against.
One need not even mention the trade and economic ties we have with communist China, a nation that routinely ranks near the bottom of every major indicator of political and economic freedom. The nonprofit Freedom House puts both China and Cuba in the same “Not Free” category, and the 2016 Index of Economic Freedom places China 144th on its list. However, none of that prevented the U.S. from engaging in over $597 billion worth of trade with China last year.
It has been said that one of the true constants in life is change. Over time, things will and do change. Change in this case would bode well for both Havana and Mobile.