Bridges to Cuba

Will the quiet power of cultural diplomacy change a nation?

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2016
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Illustrations by Edel Rodriguez

On April 21, 1959, a bearded man of thirty-two, dressed in olive-drab fatigues and a field cap, stepped onto Columbia’s College Walk. Surrounding him were police, city officials, and a few men similarly bearded and dressed for guerrilla activity. A rapturous crowd lined his path. As the world’s most famous revolutionary and the new leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro was a socialist-flavored political Elvis.

Castro was on his way to the Graduate School of Journalism to give a press conference. As he passed Low Library, he might have seen, on the steps, the bronze statue of Alma Mater and done a double take — for the steps and the sculpture were almost identical to those at the University of Havana, where he had studied law. Maybe he knew (history buff that he was) that the Havana statue’s sculptor, Mario Korbel, had been inspired by Columbia’s campus while living in New York. Maybe he knew, too, that Columbia’s journalism school was founded by the newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, whose New York World, with its lurid accounts of Spanish cruelty in rebellious Cuba, whipped up support for US intervention on the island and the Spanish-American War.

Once inside the journalism building, Castro met Grayson Kirk, Columbia’s president. According to the Spectator, Kirk “greeted the Cuban leader with warm comments about the many Cubans who have studied at Columbia.” Such a list would have to begin with Gonzalo de Quesada 1890CC, who, with Cuban national hero José Martí — both men were exiles living in New York — drew up instructions for the start of Cuba’s war of independence. (Martí, weeks before his battlefield death in 1895, named Quesada his literary executor; Quesada later became Cuba’s first minister to Washington.) Kirk could have also mentioned former student Jorge Zayas, who was editor, at that moment, of the Havana newspaper Avance.

There were, of course, other Columbians with Cuban ties, though it was the better part of discretion to elide mention of Nicholas Murray Butler, Columbia’s president from 1901 to 1945, who strongly supported the 1901 Platt Amendment, a proviso in the first Cuban constitution that gave the US a naval base at Guantánamo Bay and the right to intervene at will in Cuban affairs; or John L. O’Sullivan 1831CC, a journalist who coined the term “manifest destiny,” and who, in 1848, talked President James K. Polk into offering to buy Cuba from Spain for $100 million. (Spain declined.)

But this was 1959, and if one alumnus flickered in Castro’s mind, it was Herbert Matthews ’22CC, the New York Times reporter. In 1957, Matthews, amid rumors fanned by Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista that the rebel leader Castro was dead, made his way to a remote encampment in the Sierra Maestra mountains in southeastern Cuba and found journalistic gold. “This is the first sure news that Castro is still alive and still in Cuba,” Matthews famously wrote. “No one connected with the outside world, let alone with the press, has seen Señor Castro except this writer.” Castro credited Matthews’s flattering articles with helping to bring him to power.

Perhaps Kirk had read the Matthews pieces. In his remarks, as reported by the Spectator, Kirk “expressed the opinion that Cuba ‘will become one of the great democracies of the Western hemisphere.’”

Castro spoke to the press and met with students. Eight months later, in Havana, Jorge Zayas, his newspaper censored and attacked as “counterrevolutionary,” walked into the Ecuadorean embassy and asked for diplomatic asylum.


The Obamas weren’t the only American family on holiday in Cuba in March. Olivia Nutter, a Columbia urban-studies major in the CASA program, was heading back from the beach with her parents when Obama landed. Her father, Michael Nutter, had recently finished his second term as mayor of Philadelphia and was now teaching urban policy at SIPA.

Nutter had chosen Havana because she wanted total Spanish immersion, and also because, from an American perspective, the city held the allure of the unknown. In the end, her social experience in Cuba could be summed up in a single word: complicado.

“There is a lot of dogma and propaganda in the education system, and I think a lot of people struggle to think beyond that in the classroom,” Nutter says. To her surprise, conversations about race (Nutter is Black) and colorism were extremely limited. “To even talk about racism was deemed divisive after Fidel Castro declared it abolished in 1961,” Nutter explains. “An entire generation grew up never talking about race. There are problems with race in Cuba, but if you ask questions, it doesn’t go over well. People are not taught to question societal norms. It’s a social thing: you just don’t go there. In my class on Afro-Caribbean studies, I learned more from the silence.”

Most of her contact was with Cuban university students, whom she found to be politically self-aware, resigned to the everyday inefficiencies (“That’s Cuba” was a familiar refrain), and guarded about the future. “They understand that their opportunities are limited, and that not everything the government says is true,” Nutter says. “They don’t see things changing politically with any immediacy, but they always have hope.”

Nutter keeps in touch with her Cuban friends through Facebook (Cubans can buy Internet time from the government, but it’s costly). One recent exchange in particular struck her. She was chatting with an Afro-Cuban friend about racial problems in the US and in Cuba. “Yes,” the friend wrote, “but you have a lot more power to change your country than we do ours.”

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