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Cuba — Ripe for a Public Diplomacy Initiative

Photography class

Photography class, University of the Arts, Havana (A. Kotok)

February 2, 2013

Alan Kotok, PDAA’s newsletter and Web site editor, returned on 29 January 2013 from an eight-day University of Iowa alumni seminar in Cuba, and highlights public diplomacy opportunities for the U.S. to exploit, before others beat us to it.

We returned this week from an eight-day study tour of Cuba, mainly in Havana and the southern coastal city of Cienfuegos. The experience that included several meetings with Cuban intellectuals and educators suggests to me the U.S. has an opportunity to make direct people-to-people connections that can pay off in the post-Castro future, but only for a brief time before others beat us to it.

This tour, sponsored by the University of Iowa Alumni Association of which I’m a member, was no “fun in the sun” vacation, but included discussions with a Cuban economist, architect, ecologists, and artists. We also had tours of schools, universities, museums, galleries, a nature preserve, and a sustainable farming community, and had some free time to wander on our own. Most of the 20 tour participants were recent retirees in their 60s, but also a few people still working as teachers, business people, attorney, university faculty, and a hospital administrator.

During the last year of my USIA career that ended in 1984 — changing jobs and careers, not retiring — I helped set up the computer technology for Radio Martí. That task first brought me into contact with the Cuban exile community and piqued my curiosity about the country, although probably not in the way the exiles intended. I have mixed feelings about that experience, but valued interacting with some sincere and professional people.

A few years ago, I read Eugene Robinson’s Last Dance in Havana (Simon & Schuster, 2004) that rekindled my interest in Cuba. In the book, Robinson describes Cubans’ love of music and dance, through which he found more and more frustration with the constraints of dictatorship and the seeds at least of resistance. When I met Robinson two years ago, I asked him if the book was as much fun to write as it was to read, and he answered, “Absolutely!” So when we got the notice about the Iowa tour, my wife Sharon — a 40-year State Department veteran — and I jumped at it.

The tour hit us with plenty of Cuba’s heavy-handed propaganda, for example immediately after our airport arrival we went straight to Havana’s Revolution Square that features huge likenesses of Che Guevara and Fidel’s confidant Camilo Cienfuegos. But in subsequent discussions, economist Jorge Mario Sánchez, architect Miguel Coyula, and University of Havana literature professor Ariel Camejo candidly acknowledged shortcomings of the current Cuban model, as well as the role of the U.S. embargo, in holding back Cuban economic development.

A common theme in the talks with economist Sánchez and architect Coyula, as well as later visits to Las Terrazas, a self-contained organic community, and the Jardin Botánico nature preserve in Cienfuegos province, was sustainability. Cuba has two distinct and unequal economies: a tourist economy of modern hotels and well-stocked restaurants, and a local economy of crumbling buildings, rural poverty, and rationing. None of the Cuban experts disputed the need to develop Cuba’s local economy as fast a possible, but they also stressed the need for Cuba to keep the charm and ambiance of prerevolution Havana to keep attracting tourists.

Another theme during the tour was Cuba’s enormous reservoir of artistic creativity, which we saw first-hand at Cuba’s University of the Arts, and heard on the last day of our trip in a private concert with a chamber orchestra in Cienfuegos. As Professor Camejo outlined to us, Cuba experienced an avant-garde literary and artistic revival in the 1930s, not unlike our Harlem Renaissance of Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes. Later that day, we visited the home and discussed the work of Cuban writer José Lezama Lima, a leader of that movement.

Still another theme is business development. During our visit to La Terrazas, a sustainable community west of Havana, we saw first-hand an attempt to incorporate organic farming and development of businesses, such as an eco-restaurant and hotel, to make the community economically self-sufficient. Miguel Coyula also described a program at Havana’s Plaza Vieja that requires businesses in the restored buildings to generate income to cover the costs of restoration.

In all these themes — sustainability, arts and literature, and entrepreneurship — the U.S. has experiences from which Cuba can learn. While we hardly have all the answers to their questions, we certainly have good stories to tell and good people to tell those stories. Using our exchange programs to make those connections and tell those stories seems like a no-brainer.

Kia cars, Cienfuegos

Kia cars, Cienfuegos (A. Kotok)

So why the hurry? American tourists in Cuba, ourselves included, immediately notice the abundance of vintage 1950s automobiles in Cuba, snapping photos from tour bus windows and elsewhere. But broadening the focus, one also sees many new South Korean cars — Hyundais and Kias — among the old Desotos and Studebakers.

While in Havana we also saw a performance of Puccini’s La bohème, put on by a Korean opera company. It was a wonderful performance, but even an opening night, no more than 5 to 10 percent of the seats were filled. The Korean opera company was obviously not there to make money.

Maybe I’m making too much of it, but put the cars and opera together, and the Koreans seem to be actively courting the Cuban market, with cultural programs helping them open Cuban doors, while we remain hamstrung by 50 year-old rules.

Yes, we need to see improvements in human rights, including release of Cuban political prisoners and the American Alan Gross being held in Cuba, before there’s any talk of lifting the embargo. But we can start priming the pump in the meantime, and exchanges on sustainability, art, literature, and entrepreneurship seem like a good way to do it.


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