Bridges to Cuba

Will the quiet power of cultural diplomacy change a nation?

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2016
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Finally, on December 17, 2014, Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro addressed their nations. “We are taking steps to increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba,” Obama said. “This is fundamentally about freedom and openness, and also expresses my belief in the power of people-to-people engagement.”

DeLaurentis was in Havana that day. He could feel, in the streets, a palpable excitement. People stopped whatever they were doing to hear Castro. “Today, despite the difficulties,” the Cuban president said, “we have embarked on the task of updating our economic model in order to build a prosperous and sustainable socialism.” Cuban and American flags were draped over balconies, and church bells rang in Old Havana.

Eight months later, on August 14, 2015, DeLaurentis stood with Secretary of State John Kerry outside the US embassy building. A crowd of Cubans and Americans watched as Marine guards unfolded a US flag and hooked it to a flagpole’s halyard; as the colors scurried up, cheers broke out, and an Army band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The US Interests Section was now the US embassy.

Then, this past March, inside the Grand Theater of Havana, DeLaurentis listened as Obama spoke to a select audience of Cubans and Americans. “I have come here,” Obama said, “to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.”

But on matters of democratization and freedom of expression — central disputes between the two governments — DeLaurentis counsels patience. “We’re not going to see progress overnight,” he says.


Margaret Crahan ’67GSAS first went to Cuba in 1973 for academic research. “People from the US in Cuba were scarce as hen’s teeth,” she says. “It was very unusual for Americans to get a visa to do research in Cuba.” Crahan’s subject was pre-1959 cultural penetration in Cuba by US Protestant religions — a topic deemed sufficiently benign that Crahan got her visa extended by a month. Her fascination with the country only grew: she has been back more than sixty times.

In 2009, Crahan, a senior research scholar at the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS) at Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, started a program to foster the academic exchange of Cuban and US-based scholars. She called it, in her no-nonsense way, the Cuba Program. At the time, she and John Coatsworth, the former dean of SIPA and now Columbia’s provost, could joke that they were the only Cuba specialists at Columbia (Coatsworth first went to Cuba in 1963, in violation of a US travel ban that was later found to be unconstitutional). Now the Cuba field was exploding.

While CASA caters to undergraduates, the Cuba Program assists working academics, advising scholars in the US who are traveling to Cuba for educational purposes, and — its main thrust — covering the research and living expenses for Cuban scholars pursuing projects in the US, with Columbia as their home base. “The demands on Cuban academics in Cuba are enormous,” Crahan says. “They’re teaching, doing administration, doing service to the government and the community; it’s very difficult for them to get research time. We offer them a semester to work on their own research in the US.”

“There’s rarely been a country where every remedy is such a double-edged sword.”

Much of that research focuses on current socioeconomic issues in Cuba, especially in the non-state sector (tens of thousands of small businesses, such as restaurants, are now semi-private). “This is where the problems are going to be,” says Crahan. “The majority of Cuba’s workforce works for the state, so managing a semi-private enterprise is a challenge.” The Cuba Program has brought in Cuban economists, Cuban management experts, Cuban political scientists, Cuban entrepreneurs, even a Cuban blogger. In return, Crahan makes one request: that scholars give a talk at ILAS, open to the public.

Says Coatsworth, “There have been two groups in American society that have systematically sought to undermine the embargo and the ban on travel. One group is tourists. The other is academics. What Meg Crahan is doing is part of a tradition of keeping ideas flowing and people moving in ways that have prevented Cuba and the US from being entirely isolated from each other for the past sixty years.”


The big driver of that isolation, of course, has been the fifty-six-year-old US economic embargo, which forbids tourism and trade. “The US embargo against Cuba is a real anomaly in US foreign policy,” says Christopher Sabatini, who teaches Latin American political economy and US foreign policy at SIPA. “There’s never been a democratic transition in a country under an embargo as tight as the one we have on Cuba.”

In October 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, responding to Cuba’s seizure and nationalization of American-owned properties and businesses, cut off US exports to Cuba; and in January 1961, with Havana turning to Moscow for aid, he severed diplomatic ties and closed the US embassy. A year later, President John F. Kennedy expanded the trade embargo “to include all imports from Cuba, effectively cutting off the Cuban economy from the US market,” Sabatini says.

The sanctions remained in place and have since been strengthened by legislation. The Obama White House, unable to lift the embargo unilaterally, has sought advice from a number of experts, including Sabatini and younger, more moderate Cuban-Americans, on how best to legally chip away at the embargo without having to go to a divided Congress.

“The president cannot allow for unfettered tourism to the island, or for unfettered investment and commerce with the Cuban state,” Sabatini says. “But there are things that can be legally justified if you can argue they’re helping the Cuban people: travel to the island under the twelve approved categories announced in 2014, cell-phone service, direct mail, academic and cultural exchanges, professional delegations — Obama has argued that all this is benefiting the Cuban people.”

DeLaurentis, too, advocates engagement over isolation: from his vantage at the embassy in Havana, as 1950s tail-finned automobiles of turquoise and lipstick red cruise the coastal highway, the chargé d’affaires leaves no doubt as to the political temperature. “The president has made it clear,” he says, “that the embargo should be lifted. But that is up to Congress.”

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