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Detroit — Michigan and Cuba could be great business partners, Cuba’s ambassador to the U.S. said Tuesday.

“I think (like Cuba,) your main asset here is the people,” José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez said after his keynote address to the Detroit Economic Club. “We probably should think about how we can compliment each other. No doubt agriculture is one field, but there are many others.”

Cabañas, who is based in Washington, D.C., and has been Cuba’s ambassador to the U.S. since 2015, spoke to a crowd of about 200 people at the club’s luncheon.

“I invite all of you to come to Cuba and see what we have done over the last few years,” he said.

He was visiting Michigan and Detroit to discuss America’s embargo on the communist Caribbean island nation and future investment opportunities there. The U.S. has maintained a 59-year-old trade embargo on Cuba and formal ban on Americans engaging in tourism on the island. But the ban on trade with Cuba softened in 2014, when then-President Barack Obama announced the U.S. would re-establish diplomatic relations with the small nation.

Cabañas said the blockade on Cuba continues to have profound repercussions on the country’s economy and called members of the audience at the economic club luncheon to urge elected officials to lift it.

“The U.S. has been wasting money, many, many millions of dollars in the last 20 years in order to reach and influence the Cuban people,” he said. “Our suggestion is: Let’s stop all of that. Let’s use that money in a productive way, and let’s do business with Cuba the same way we do with everyone else.”

Kimberly Hairston, 52, of Southfield said she was excited to hear the ambassador’s speech Tuesday.

“I think it’s very encouraging and very promising,” said Hairston, who attended the luncheon with a group of students from the Wayne County Community College District, where she works in student services. “I hope relations between Cuba and the U.S can become stronger.”

Cabañas speech at the Detroit Economic Club comes a day after he spoke to the board of directors of the Michigan Farm Bureau.

Kevin Robson, horticulture specialist with the bureau, said Cabañas spent about 90 minutes talking to board members about normalizing trade relations between Cuba and the U.S through bilateral agreements and potential opportunities for Michigan’s farmers to export dairy and fruit to the island Latin American country.

Michigan and Metro Detroit have small populations of people with Cuban ancestry.

Am estimated 10,000 people of Cuban descent, or about a tenth of one percent of the state’s total population, call Michigan home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Metro Detroit, those of Cuban ancestry account for about 3,000 — or .06 percent — of the area’s 4.2 million people, the agency reports.

cramirez@detroitnews.com

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