FEATURE

Bridges to Cuba

Will the quiet power of cultural diplomacy change a nation?

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2016
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“At the same time,” she said, “we need to understand why December 17, 2014, happened. For many years, there were universities, people, professors, and think tanks that advocated for improved relations between our countries. The new actors are important, but we cannot deny what had been building up between our two societies during those long years when there was very little communication.”

The speaker then described a perception among some Cuban scholars and state officials that the US, with its rhetoric of economic empowerment, was trying to “seduce” the Cuban people, hoping “to drive a wedge between the Cuban people and the Cuban government, to wean the Cuban people off their dependence on the state by subsidizing the market economy, with the expectation that the Cuban people, thus empowered, would be motivated to act in defense of private economic interests and therefore act as agents of political change.

“In this view, the US is embarking on normalization to change Cuba: to restructure its economy, to remake its political system, to reorganize the character of Cuban society,” she said. “But the reality is that there are too many diverse interests in Cuba. You can’t talk about one path or one idea prevailing. It is too early.”

 

For some, this is the heart of the matter: what effect will limited private enterprise and increased exposure to Americans have on the values that most Cubans want to preserve: universal health care, universal education, egalitarianism, anti-imperialism?

“Economically, no one knows what’s going to happen,” says Murray-Bozeman, who majors in economics and comp lit. “But things are opening up. Cubans have access to more ideas. There is censorship, but freedom of the press is growing with blogs. Americans are coming, and Cubans can travel more. People I met see these as positive changes, and they want them to continue, even if they don’t know where they’ll end up.”

“Economically, no one knows what’s going to happen. But things are opening up."

One place they aren’t likely to end up, according to SIPA’s Sabatini, is shareholder heaven. “The intention of the Obama administration was always to get businesses engaged and see what’s possible, and we’re seeing that,” Sabatini says. “But Cuba is not going to be a paradise for US investors. That’s because it’s a country of eleven million poor people, with very stringent requirements on investment.”

Coatsworth says that what the Cuban authorities have in mind is a process “similar to the Chinese or Vietnamese models, where you liberalize the economy without changing the political structure. I think the Cuban government has some time to demonstrate that it can organize the economy in a way that not only provides basic services, but also grows rapidly and offers a future to its citizens.

“If they can do that,” says Coatsworth, “it would be great for the Cuban people, and in the long run it would probably lead to greater liberalization in politics.”

 

Jeffrey DeLaurentis lives in the US chief of mission residence, a sixty-five-room neoclassical limestone mansion built in 1941 in an outlying section of Havana once known as Country Club Park. The Obamas stayed there during their visit.

But DeLaurentis’s real home is the embassy building, to which he first came twenty-five years ago. It’s from this base that he conducts his diplomatic duties: e-mails, meetings with the foreign ministry and other Cuban officials, talks with Cuban and American groups and members of civil society, contact with diplomatic counterparts and businesspeople, and a lot of phone calls to Washington.

“We’re trying to build an embassy here,” he says.

In some ways, DeLaurentis began building things — bridges, call them — when he was twelve. He could remember the morning he walked into his kitchen and told his parents that he wanted to be a diplomat. His father, an electrical engineer, had been reading the newspaper, and the paper slowly came down. “He was a science guy,” DeLaurentis says, “and he didn’t really understand where that came from.”

DeLaurentis ended up going to the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, and then to Columbia, never suspecting that his bridge would cross a strait and not an ocean.

Outside the embassy windows, the sun passes over the five-hundred-year-old city and resolves into a flat disk of orange in the blue-opal sky; Havana’s mottled colors, the walls and archways of yellow and pink and Key-lime green, ripen in the golden hour.

“The bottom line,” DeLaurentis says, “is that the best way to promote US interests and values is by engaging, developing contacts, communicating, in some cases arguing. Having wider and deeper contact with the Cuban government and the Cuban people obviously puts us in a better place to advocate for the universal values that we believe in, and believe all societies should protect.”

 

Later that evening, on the Malecón, people stroll, talk, laugh, drink rum, play music, catch a breeze, and talk about everything but politics. Beyond the seawall, the dark water stretches out, black, wide, fusing with the night sky, a gulf of darkness, a hundred miles of it between here and Key West. And though you can’t see them, there are crossings here, their towers planted long ago, their cables slung over the deepest political chasms by the lonely ambassadors and explorers who came to see, to learn, to teach, to help, to connect. Now, more Americans are coming, over bridges quietly built.



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