Exchange Matters / August 9, 2016

Cuba as an Emerging Market for Change

Once lauded as a vibrant, expressive place for cultural enrichment for the American public, Cuba’s strained diplomatic relations with the U.S. has recently proved a difficult obstacle for the field of international exchange to overcome. However, improving political ties paired with Cuba’s close geographic proximity and reputation for cultural breadth has opened the island nation into an appealing destination within the field of international exchange.

The early 20th century saw everyone from Ernest Hemingway to the American mafia put roots in the neighboring nation, and millions of average American citizens flocked to Havana each year for the sunshine and seaside. Cuba’s fascinating history, unique culture, and bustling nightlife made the country a popular destination for international industry and private exchange. As the U.S. commitment to defending democracy and capitalism around the globe came to head in the decades preceding the turn of the century, Cuban-American relations faltered dramatically, and private tours, excursions, and exchanges were severely limited. In 1962, the Kennedy administration passed a full embargo, restricting all trade and travel.

Despite the restrictions, the U.S. Department of State has allowed educational activities, professional research, and workshops to continue between the two countries. Educational foundations such as Smithsonian have long offered learning intensive programs in Cuba for a fee, and International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP) is already excploring opportunities. Fortunately, the government recognized the tremendous need for limited citizen diplomacy in spite of economic and political discord, and allowed travel for educational enrichment purposes to continue.

If educational excursions and people-to-people exchanges are already allowed as exceptions to the embargo, what exactly does Obama’s plan to fully restore U.S.- Cuban relations have to offer the field of cultural exchange? In all actuality, the plan, announced in late 2014, would tremendously grow exchange between the two countries. As it currently stands, even traveling under the allowance of an exception is still extremely difficult; it requires individual approval from the U.S. Department of Treasury as well as a travel license. Scheduling must be meticulously planned and approved before travel. Moreover, the lack of ubiquitous and convenient travel opportunities make programming to, within, and from Cuba a nightmare. Very few U.S. airlines fly to Havana, and those that do operate infrequently, making the logistical aspects of Cuban travel unappealing to those within the field of international education and equally so for prospective participants who would field prices well into the 3,000$-5,000 dollar range for a weeklong program. Simply put, the State Department’s reforms would effectively diminish these issues and make Cuba a premier destination for citizen diplomacy.

The relaxed rules have already allowed multiple airlines and airports to announce flight pathways to Cuba, which helps ease the expense and hassle of air travel. The Department of Treasury has already issued relaxations to previous restrictions, and the end goal of restoring diplomatic relations would eliminate this middle man entirely. Additionally, opening up Cuban markets in the United States and vice versa is particularly helpful for professional exchanges focused on a particular industry. Each industrial sector in Cuba has a guild that manages an individual international relations office. Any type of professional visit has to be approved by the relevant industry international relations office as well as the parallel government office; however, loosening restrictions will allow for less rigidity in these professional visits, facilitating easier professional exchange. Exploring business relations between the two formerly uncooperative neighbors makes for a unique underpinning of professional exchange programs.

The loosening of the embargo has already made strides in the field of exchange in the short time it’s been underway. The Department of State’s InterAmerican Network of Alumni, in fact, opened up an Exchange Alumni network in Cuba in late June, representing a move towards a more standardized and regular exchange partnership. In parallel, many community-based members within the Global Ties U.S. network have expressed interest in broadening their exchange relationship with Cuba, including World Trade Center Arkansas, which has already sent two delegations to Cuba in 2016. Pattie Umali, a recent participant in a school-sponsored Cuban exchange and a Fellow at Global Ties U.S., confirms that the Cuban people are already receptive to efforts to expand cultural understanding between the two countries, and believes they are eager to welcome more and more American visitors each year.

“Cubans care very much about the process of building relationships, and partnerships must be built on trust and patience,” Umali notes.”People have to keep in mind that they should be able to recognize what Cuba has to offer the United States and not just the other way around.”

As Umali highlights, the emerging opportunities for exchange between Cuba and the United States are symbiotic– both countries will benefit. An example of this comes from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where Cuban Medical students are assisting medical researchers in uncovering how marine bacteria could be used for medicinal purposes. In turn, the students gain valuable experience using the U.S.’ state-of-the-art equipment that will replace Cuba’s outdated equipment as diplomatic ties progress towards full free trade.

Interestingly, Cuba isn’t the first country to overcome strained diplomatic relations with the U.S. to reach a mutually beneficial outcome through exchange. In fact, many countries with which Americans may consider to have less-than-friendly ties have similar opportunities. In 2009, despite U.S. sanctions and chilly ties, Iran sent a delegation of musicians to a small Ohio town to learn about American folk music. Small diplomatic efforts such as this one may seem meaningless, but have a tangible impact on the outcome of larger diplomatic outputs such as the 2015 Nuclear Agreement. Also worth mentioning are the countless exchange programs undertaken during the Cold War that helped forge meaningful bonds and created the desire for a more open relationship between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

The U.S. sees the potential of exchange even in countries as politically removed from us as North Korea. A recent independent assessment of opportunities for engagement with North Korea by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) concluded that people-to-people exchange with North Korea is not only feasible, but would be “a meaningful step towards laying the groundwork for diplomatic breakthroughs”. Both in terms of low priority diplomatic change such as cultural understanding and in terms of high priority change like nuclear nonproliferation, exchange is an important foreign policy tool not only valuable with our allies, but with the world at large.

It is clear that the improving diplomatic relations between the two countries provide the means for fruitful and enriching exchange initiatives. President Obama has laid the groundwork for people-to-people ties between the two countries, and the field of citizen diplomacy is poised and capable of taking on this unique challenge. What’s left to be seen is how our impressive network will make this opportunity their own.

By Ellie Solloway, Global Ties U.S.