Taking the Wind out of the Sails

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Photo:The New York Times

When DJ Diplo/Major Lazer took the stage at Anti-Imperialist plaza in Havana in March 2016, the air was filled with energy and emotion that captured a special moment in US-Cuba relations. Hundreds of thousands of Cuban youth filled the iconic Havana seawall (malecon), positioning for the best view of the American electronic music group, clearing room to twist and jump to the booming beats. The setting couldn’t have been more perfect, the US Embassy and American flag waving in the background and the famous Hotel Nacional – filled at the time with visiting US citizens – overlooking the historic concert. Everyone knew that just weeks later President Obama would visit the island with his family, leading by example that it was legal, safe, fun, and cool to come to Cuba. Smiles, tears, hugs and fist bumps were on full display and the energy captured the Cuban people’s sentiment: there was no turning back. The US and Cuba were finally normalizing relations and Cuba was finally headed in the right direction.

Just seven months later the reality changed significantly; very much for the worse. Donald Trump’s electoral victory in November 2016 was quickly followed by hostile tweets about Fidel Castro, a White House-Senator Rubio Cuba-policy alliance, a Presidential Directive issued in Miami surrounded by anti-Cuba hardliners and the downsizing of the US Embassy in Havana. The Trump Administration’s Cuba policy, conceptualized by Senator Rubio, aimed to suck the air out of the 450,000 young Cubans enjoying Diplo and millions of other Cubans and Americans pushing for better relations. Opponents of normalized relations very well understand that educational, cultural and other meaningful exchanged between our two countries helped build public opinion, relationships and political support for an end to the embargo. A centerpiece of their policy is to freeze as much dialogue and contact between both governments and peoples, hoping to slow down momentum for better relations.


A Strategy to Break People-to-People Contacts

The key element to the Trump Administration’s policy to slowdown the normalization process with Cuba is to change the psychology of travelers, institutions and businesspeople engaging with the island. Commercial flights, one-click reservations with Airbnb and Obama’s visit made Cuba normal to the average American. A great increase in visitors and extensive academic and cultural exchanges solidified people-to-people relationships and working agreements. By claiming to “cancel” the Obama deal, tweaking travel regulations and ongoing rhetoric about the “bad” Cuban government, Trump aimed to change the psychology around Cuba, hoping to scare off interest. Very little of this discourse was backed by actual measures, although the administration did tweak travel regulations and issue a list of banned entities with the aim of injected confusion and fear.

Trump’s New Cuba policy – announced in June and written into law in November – prohibited Americans from visiting as individuals (without a sponsoring organization) under the people-to-people category. Under Obama, Americans could visit under this category by simply pledging in good faith to avoid tourism and spend the majority of their time interacting with Cubans. This was the most straightforward and common way for average Americans to visit, which is the reason why Trump (and Rubio) targeted it. Little or no changes were made to other categories of legal visits, including traditional academic travel, conferences, meetings, sporting competitions and professional research. The Trump Administration also made it illegal to engage in any direct financial transactions with a list of nearly 200 Cuban entities associated with the Cuban Armed Forces or intelligence apparatus, including several important hotels and tourist establishments. The list, however, did not include the vast majority of Cuban state companies and none of the hundreds of thousands of private b&bs, restaurants and service providers.

Given the fact Trump originally threatened to “cancel” everything the Obama Administration had done, these modest changes were mere tweaks. Travel to Cuba was very much still legal and feasible. Unfortunately, the complicated regulations and Trump’s messaging led to press reports that “Americans cannot stay in hotels,” “Travelers can only visit with tour groups,” and in some cases, “Trump shuts down Cuba travel.” The Administration was intentionally vague about the new regulations, refusing to provide clarity on the Support for the Cuban People category, which clearly allows Americans to visit as individuals (without an organization) if they spend time meeting with Cubans and frequenting private establishments.

The new regulations were unsettling and confusing to would-be travelers. However, they were not overly damaging because the changes were not too significant, and experts, lawyers and marketing specialists would work to clarify them. The Travel Industry and policy community scrambled to inform the public and interested travelers reached out to seek clarity. It’s unclear how significant of an impact the regulatory changes would have had if not accompanied by something bigger.


Closing of the US Embassy and Travel Warning

President Trump’s June speech set the stage for the real blow to diplomatic relations and cultural and educational exchanges. On August, news broke that US diplomats had suffered some sort of health incident while serving in Havana. Kept under close wraps for months as both sides investigated, the situation quickly unraveled once it made it to the press. Political pressure from opponents of engagement, a lack of confidence and communication between US and Cuban counterparts, and a mix of health injuries, paranoia and confusion led the Trump Administration to implement an ordered departure of the US Embassy in Havana. All “non-essential” staff and family members were ordered home – the great majority against their will – and a meager group of one dozen diplomats were left to serve. Moreover, the drawdown triggers a mandatory travel warning, advising Americans not to visit Cuba for safety reasons.

A decade of progress through people-to-people exchanges, government-to-government cooperation and an influx of American visitors, including President Obama himself, that made Cuba normal and safe was erased overnight. Unsubstantiated reports of “sonic weapons” and “targeted attacks” read like a Cold War thriller and Cuba made the front page of major papers and the national nightly news as the frightening scene of a sophisticated, scary crime against US diplomats. It didn’t matter that the FBI acknowledged there was no evidence of any attack, the US government believed the Cuban government was not behind the incidents and the majority of US diplomats in Havana felt safe and wanted to stay. This was too juicy of a story, and endless, unsubstantiated and incorrect reports –  many purposely leaked by US officials – quickly changed the perception the average American has of Cuba.

The endless, negative narrative in the media was accompanied by very severe consequences of the Embassy closure and the unwarranted Travel Warning. The State Department left behind a sole consular official who was instructed not to issue visas for migration, exchange programs and family visits. Thousands of Cubans were left separated from their families, hundreds of academics and cultural groups had exchange visits to the US canceled and Cubans hoping to visit family in the US were forced to put travel plans on hold. Eventually visa interviews were rescheduled for first Colombia and then Guyana, adding thousands of dollars in cost, creating logistical hardships and reducing the probability of visa approvals. A true tragedy, the policy has nearly shutdown all academic, cultural and entrepreneurial travel from Cuba to the US.

The Travel Warning has also done enormous damage, causing numerous universities, high schools, cultural institutions and companies to scrap their Cuba travel plans. Many institutions have internal policies that prevent travel to any country with a warning in place for insurance and liability reasons. Clearly political, the wording of the Travel Warning is stronger than those for countries with serious risk for terrorism, political instability and violent crime. Moreover, a description of the circumstances is intentionally vague, taking into account that the more specific the language, the easier it is for institutions and individuals to assess risk and take mitigation measures.

The 1-2 combo of the Embassy downsizing and Travel Warning had a disastrous impact on people-to-people exchanges. Theatres and nightclubs in the US canceled performances by Cuban cultural acts. US universities were left without visiting Cuban professors and incomplete research projects. Academic, medical and scientific conferences in the US were once again left without a Cuban presence. Approximately 20-25 percent of scheduled US study abroad programs in Cuba were cancelled. A number of US companies interested in the Cuban market thought twice about moving forward, and countless American travelers decided to annul plans to visit.

Travel regulations are easy to explain. Sonic Attacks are not. The embassy situation was a true gift to Senator Rubio and his gang of Cold Warriors that would use anything to stop bilateral progress.


Soft Diplomacy and Reconciliation

The best way to fight back against opponents of engagement that have created the current situation is by doing exactly what they aim to stop. People-to-people exchanges breakdown stereotypes, build confidence and lead to strong friendships and professional relationships. A little league game between the US and Cuba changes more hearts and minds than a political speech. Cuban dance groups filling U.S. theatres recalibrate American perceptions of Cuba more than newspaper editorials. US students and professors are the best messengers of the Cuban reality and sound policy.

The Cuban Government has an incredible asset in this battle, which is the rich culture and incredible talent of the Cuban people. Smart cultural diplomacy like the Kennedy Center’s Artes de Cuba Festival and the Rolling Stones concert are extremely powerful. The Gran Teatro, Plaza de la Revolucion and other Cuban venues should host dozens of major international artists each year. US and International Sports teams should be welcomed with open arms to play games on Cuban soil. Cuban universities should continue to engage with US counterparts, and medical and scientific associations should actively pursue partnerships with American colleagues.

We saw great progress in this realm under Obama and the Cuban government should not allow Trump’s hostility to close the doors to this important engagement. On the contrary, Cuba should pursue it with more energy and conviction than before.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Trump’s Cuba policy and particularly the closing of the Embassy has been the silence in Miami. Thousands of Cubans had their plans for family reunification delayed or canceled. Many more celebrated birthdays, graduations and weddings or suffered through surgeries and funerals without relatives from Cuba, who were unable to get visas. Nevertheless, local media has barely covered the hardship and not only have local Members of Congress ignored their suffering, they’re the very ones pushing this policy forward. There’s no organization and activism.

The Cuban Government’s policy of reengaging the Cuban-American community is hugely important in changing this context. Additional steps to make it easier for Cubans abroad to return to Cuba – for visits or permanently – and engage culturally, economically and socially on the island will bolster them politically in the United States and help create and grow a community of allies. Local organizations need to also work harder in creating political consciousness and promoting voter registration and civil participation. There has never been a more important time to push for engagement and reconciliation with the Cuban American community.


Fighting Back with Engagement

On the American side, advocates for engagement need to live by the saying “when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” and keep at it. Universities and educational associations should work together to share information about their experiences in Cuba and help new institutions confront the challenges presented by the travel warning. Despite the added cost and logistical challenges for visas, they should be active in getting Cuban scholars and students on their campuses. It’s challenging, but it is possible. They should be proactive in sharing success stories with local and national media and colleagues in other departments and at other schools.

The Kennedy Center has shown great leadership on the cultural front. They flew over 300 Cubans to Mexico to process visas for the long-awaited month of Cuban Culture in DC. They’re bringing Cuba to the American public for all the right reasons: incredible art, dance and music. Cultural institutions and the private sector should follow in their footsteps, changing the narrative about Cuba once again.

Finally, proponents of engagement should follow President Obama’s lead and visit Cuba, bringing as many Members of Congress, State Governors, City Mayors, thought leaders and everyday Americans with them. The goodwill, deep relationships and changed mindsets that result from visiting Cuba set the conditions for December 17th and is the key to getting out of this tough moment.  

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