public diplomacy

Event Review: Building Bridges: Strengthening Education & Citizen Exchange Linkages between the United States and Cuba

Assistant Secretary Evan Ryan makes opening remarksSpeaking in both Spanish and English, Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University Frank Sesno described in his introductory remarks the thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba as the threshold of a new era. Hosted at George Washington University on September 9, the program— a collaboration with GWU’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Affairs, the Department of State, and Sister Cities International–brought together approximately 200 representatives of NGOs, universities, think tanks, government, and the private sector to discuss academic and citizen exchanges with Cuba. Sesno emphasized the importance of building bridges through exchanges and GWU’s intention to strengthen relations further between the peoples of the United States and Cuba. Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs Evan Ryan described the new relations between the U.S. and Cuba as a historic moment that comes along once in a lifetime. She noted that “the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the easing of some restrictions on trade and travel open a door to exploring a new relationship and creating a new paradigm to define relations between the United States and Cuba and between the American people and the Cuban people.” She added that ”people-to-people exchanges play a unique and critical role, helping people to build bridges where gaps exist, breaking down barriers that separate people of goodwill, building connections that engage and empower people, motivating them to become leaders and thinkers, and helping participants use their skills and develop new ones, which improves their communities.”

Mary Kane, President and CEO of Sister Cities International, informed the audience that nine Sister City members have already built relationships with Cuban cities, which include cultural and educational exchanges as well as humanitarian relief. Sister city relationships develop citizen diplomats who learn from each other and form relationships of trust which lay the foundations for peace and prosperity.

The first panel was moderated by professor at GWU and former Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, P. J. Crowley. Crowley stated that in contrast to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which took place almost 26 yearsago, the Cold War in this hemisphere ended just a few months ago. As the United States seeks to build bridges, people around the world pay particular attention to what we do, not just what we say–and there is no more powerful statement than President Obama fundamentally changing the U.S. policy approach on Cuba. The State Department’s Deputy Coordinator for Cuban Affairs, Joan Perkins, described the new policy approach of engagement as unchartered territory. She noted that while the re-establishment of diplomatic relations is a milestone, our goal with respect to Cuba remains the same — to empower the Cuban people and support the emergence of a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba. She described normalization as a long and complicated process that will take time and involve continuous dialogue by both countries. Perkins expressed the hope that the easing of travel restrictions will continue to facilitate exchanges because as President Obama has stated, our citizens are our best ambassadors. Jeff Braunger of the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control noted that the relaxation in the travel regulations can facilitate exchanges but emphasized that tourism to Cuba is still not allowed. Alan Christian of the Department of Commerce Bureau for Industry and Security explained regulatory changes that support the Cuban people such as the easing of restrictions on gifts to Cubans and of exports supporting the private sector. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Private Sector Exchange Robin Lerner described the privately funded J-1 program, which brings approximately 280,000 visitors from overseas to the United States annually for work and study based exchanges supported by private organizations. Last year, 49 exchange visitors from Cuba came to the United States on J-1 programs, mostly as short-term scholars conducting joint research at research institutions, museums, or libraries. With time, she noted that there could be an increase in the number of J-1 exchanges with Cuba.

The second panel, moderated by U.S. Embassy Havana’s Deputy Public Affairs Officer Lydia Barraza, offered a glimpse into existing private collaboration between Cubans and Americans. Jennifer Attal Allen, President and Executive Director of Academic Programs International, provided facts and figures on the educational system and outlined the procedure for entering into educational exchanges and acquiring visas. Michael Eizenberg, President of the Educational Travel Alliance, who has traveled to Cuba more than 60 times in the last 15 years, stressed the similarities between Americans and Cubans and the easily established rapport both sides enjoy. Eizenberg described all participants as winners and underscored the need for exchanges to go in both directions. Cynthia Vidaurri of the National Museum of the American Indian and Curator of Smithsonian Folklife Festival on Cuba described the incredible sophistication of the Cuban scholars and recommended deep engagement and reciprocity in establishing long-term programs in Cuba. Finally, Adam Kaplan, Vice President of Sister Cities International, described activities by the nine current Sister Cities members with relationships with Cuban cities and advocated for the development of long-term, multi-sector partnerships by communities under the sister cities model.

In his closing remarks, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Gonzalo Gallegos described the remarkable evolution in Cuba-U.S. relations since he was posted there 12 years ago, stating that during his assignment in Cuba, his job was to highlight differences between our two governments, whereas today it is important to emphasize similarities between the two peoples. Gallegos urged participants to be creative and collaborate with citizens, universities, and NGOs in developing programs that can advance what the President started and foster mutual understanding. GWU Director of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Affairs Sean Aday described GWU’s commitment to supporting further relations between theU.S. and Cuba and underlined some themes running through the conference, including that developing exchanges demands time and patience as one overcomes issues of protocol and paperwork and as one listens to partners to understand their needs. He noted that peer–to-peer exchanges can be the most powerful, whether it be military to military or artist to artist.

Lively question and answer sessions followed each panel. Some questions that could not be addressed during the program will be answered in follow-up e-mail messages. In networking sessions, participants exchanged experiences (and business cards) among themselves and with the panelists, exploring areas of future collaboration. The most common piece of feedback seemed to be that we host more events like these.

Other resources on the symposium:

State Department’s DipNote blog post
Sister Cities International’s blog post
Copy of the cuba event program
Videos of the program are at IPDGC’s YouTube channel


About Thomas Miller

Thomas Miller is the Public Diplomacy Fellow at George Washington University on loan from the Department of State.


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