Bridges to Cuba

Will the quiet power of cultural diplomacy change a nation?

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2016
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Cultivo una rosa blanca,” President Obama began, and the audience applauded the reference. “In his most famous poem,” said Obama, “José Martí made this offering of friendship and peace to both his friend and his enemy. Today, as the president of the United States of America, I offer the Cuban people el saludo de paz.”

It was the morning of March 22, 2016, and Ana Maria Dopico ’00GSAS, a professor of comparative literature at NYU, was seated in a studio at public-radio station WNYC, listening live to Obama’s speech at the Grand Theater of Havana. Across from her was host Brian Lehrer ’96PH.

Obama spoke of Hemingway and Martí, of baseball and boxing. He stated that the US “has neither the capacity nor the intention to impose change on Cuba.” Then he said, “This is about family: the memory of a home that was lost; the desire to rebuild a broken bond; the hope for a better future; the hope for return and reconciliation. For all of the politics, people are people, and Cubans are Cubans. And I’ve come here — I’ve traveled this distance — on a bridge that was built by Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits. It is time, now, for us to leave the past behind.”

When the speech ended, Lehrer asked the Havana-born Dopico for her reaction.

The emotion of the moment was audible in Dopico’s voice. “That was a beautiful speech,” she said. “It was an important speech. It was eloquent. I was immensely moved.” Dopico and Lehrer took calls from Cuban-American listeners who, with Dopico, articulated the complexities of Cuban consciousness. Not everyone was ready to leave the past behind. “The project of political memory that we’re confronting is a heavy one,” Dopico told a man whose father had been executed by the Castro regime. “It involves confronting these huge wounds and trying to figure out how to mend.”

Dopico left Cuba in 1967, at age four. She and her family took a plane to Miami under the Freedom Flights program, a joint US-Cuba operation that ran from 1965 to 1973. Her parents, both doctors, had initially embraced the revolution. “For them, Batista represented all that was terrible,” she says. “Revolution meant salvation. But my father was kind of an iconoclast, and he found life difficult under Castro: you had to be politicized, take loyalty oaths. He couldn’t do it.”

Dopico grew up in a progressive household in Miami at a time when anti-Castro groups regularly set off bombs against supporters of dialogue with Havana. “There were Cuban-American progressives, but their voices were drowned out,” Dopico says. “The Cold War stereotype of a hard-line exile community in Miami persists, though now it’s largely obsolete. Newer generations and remittances from Miami have long helped to sustain Cuba’s economy.”

As Dopico listened from New York to Obama’s speech, Mirta Ojito ’01JRN, author of Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus, followed it from her home in Miami. Ojito left Cuba in 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlift, in which some 125,000 Cubans fled their homeland. She was sixteen.

“I was very scared but excited,” Ojito recalls. “The moment I arrived at my uncle’s house in Miami I asked for a writing pad because I knew I had witnessed something extraordinary.”

Ojito became a journalist and was part of a New York Times team that won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. She says the Cuban community in Miami is conflicted about Obama’s trip. Some people wanted more in return — changes in the very structure of the Cuban political system — while others think the visit stripped the Cuban government of a classic excuse for its problems: that it has to fight the enemy. “The government can still point to the embargo,” says Ojito, “but it’s harder for Cubans to see the US as the enemy when you have this man come to the island with his family.”


Shortly after Obama’s star turn in Havana, Margaret Crahan sat in a packed room on the eighth floor of the International Affairs Building and introduced Soraya Castro (no relation), a professor at the Instituto Superior de Relaciones Internacionales in Havana and the evening’s Cuba Program speaker. The topic: US-Cuba relations. It was one of the Cuba Program’s virtues that the audience, which included John Coatsworth, would hear not from an American expert on Cuba, but rather, a Cuban expert on the US.

“There are some things,” Castro began, “we have to take into consideration.”

The speaker called the process toward normalization that began on December 17, 2014, “the biggest change in US–Cuba relations since 1959,” and cited two major underlying factors not to be ignored: asymmetry (“Not only population or size; I mean the capacities of the two countries to influence each other”) and distrust (“We must understand the historical context in which Cuba was born — under US occupation — and how, in our first constitution, the Platt Amendment was imposed”).

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