The man behind Mobile’s engagement with Cuba

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Former Mobile Mayor Michael C. Dow (center) with Cuban officials and others in a 1999 photo. Photo by Mobile Press-Register.

If one man can be credited with leading Mobile’s engagement with Cuba, it’s Michael C. Dow. A Vietnam veteran who lost his best friend in the war, Dow believes that dialogue can reduce conflict.

Dow was mayor of Mobile for 16 years until 2005, serving without party affiliation and working to bring consensus behind common goals such as economic development. He ran for office, after co-developing Mobile-based tech startup QMS (Quality Micro Systems) with his brother-in-law into a global competitor listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

The spark for Dow’s Cuba engagement came from Mobile’s historian Jay Higginbotham. The scholar had asked the previous mayor to form a Sister City link with Russia’s seaport Rostov-on-Don, which he did. Dow, as a private citizen, agreed to pick up Rostov’s mayor when he visited. Flying into Mobile over water, the visitor joked: “To an alligator, an American and Russian taste the same,” and the two became friendly. When Higginbotham in 1993 suggested a similar Cuba link, Dow as mayor agreed.

“I love people. I always felt that we have more in common than we do differences, and if you can find that commonality, you can solve a lot of problems,” Dow told Cuba Trade over breakfast on the terrace of Spot of Tea café in downtown Mobile, an area he helped revitalize.

But opposition flared to the Havana link, especially from Cuban circles in South Florida. Dow said even the FBI came to see him and warn him to be careful. He persisted, convinced that the U.S. Cold War policy towards Cuba had not been working and that dialogue could build bridges. With the Society Mobile-La Habana group, Dow repeatedly visited Cuba with delegations, brought Cuban groups to his city, and in 2005, helped organize a two-day National Summit on Cuba in Mobile.

Dow was used to challenges. His father, a military man, abandoned the family when Dow was nine. His mom suffered a breakdown soon after and ended up institutionalized. Dow was shuttled between foster homes before being adopted by his grandfather. As a teen, When he was old enough, he headed off to war. He had visited Mobile to see an uncle and there met the love of his life, married her, and made the city his home.

Reading up on the Vietnam conflict, Dow concluded: “We made some miscues on dialogue, more people became our enemies, and we spent years fighting wars that could have been avoided.”

Since finishing four terms as mayor, the hard-working Dow has continued to focus on Mobile’s economic development and its ties with Cuba. He’s currently helping the nonprofit Alabama Contemporary Art Center organize a Cuban art exhibit. Said Dow, “We are trying to show culturally who the Cuban people are.”

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