A little over a month ago, inside an international fair on the outskirts of Havana’s Miramar neighborhood, I heard from a local representative of the Committee to Free the Cuban Five that President Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro had come to a compromise. I wonder now if that was a professional crisis for the man who told me, since the prisoner swap that occurred on Dec. 17 brought closure to the cause of the Cuban Five committee and its local affiliates all over the island.
The historic announcement about ending the economic and political embargo came three and a half months after I arrived in Cuba for a semester at the University of Havana. The New York Times Editorial Board had published a number of pieces arguing for Obama to take action in the weeks and months preceding the announcement. Some of these editorials had reached the house I lived in with 25 or so other Americans, but none of us had a sense that things were going to change so quickly in our last few days there.
President Obama has since argued against the embargo in a new stretch of presidential power, and will seek formal legislation in the 114th Congress. For most Americans, the travel ban and visa licensing process will not stand in the way of traveling to Havana. The Cuban-American community has been divided in their response. Many older Cubans view these changes as a betrayal of their suffering at the hands of Fidel Castro. But the majority of Cuban Americans have supported a policy shift with regards to the embargo.
While some are concerned by our dealing with a Communist country, they need only look to normalized relations with China and Vietnam to see the fruits of diplomatic openness. In terms of Cuba more specifically, the Carter-era openings that brought about the Cuban and U.S. Interest Sections in Washington and Havana were never overturned but rather used as means of achieving U.S. goals in Latin America. This initiative continued even under subsequent administrations who perceived Cuba as a rogue state.
Most Americans probably didn’t realize that one of the State Department’s largest outposts in Latin America is in Havana or that 600,000 Americans (most with family connections to the island) travel there every year. That figure is about to skyrocket. One expert, Julia Sweig, estimated that the number might even quadruple in the next year. Over $2 billion flows back to Cuba in remissions every year. All these figures prove that bilateral ties are stronger than many realize and will only deepen in the coming years.
As a pioneer in global education, Yale should seize upon this historic opportunity to foster dialogue with Cuba. The University can work to bring Cuban academics here to campus, to engage with the community and connect to a culture that has been largely cut off from the United States for the past 50 years. Cuba’s history and the outsized role our nation has played in its politics can teach us important lessons about the unsuccessful uses of hard power in Latin America.
There’s precedent for a Yale-led academic exchange that would bring Cuban academics and diplomats from their posts on the island, in Washington and at the United Nations to New Haven. In 1977, as President Carter’s administration re-established limited diplomatic relations with Castro, Yale professor Al Stepan was one of the leaders in coordinating the travel of several Cuban academics to the United States. Yale was one of the first two schools, along with Johns Hopkins, to host the academics in America. This marked the first authorized Cuban academic exchange since the embargo first began in 1960.
The people I met in Havana have followed American politics and culture much more closely than we have followed theirs. You may say that this is the relationship of a large country to a small one, of a super power to a regional one, but it’s a dynamic that has to change for our diplomatic effort to succeed. In the past, a failure to understand Cuban motivations and realities has weakened our standing in the world.
Yesterday, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson began the semiannual migration talks in Havana, this time with an expanded agenda that will include the logistics of full diplomatic relations. We have a responsibility to follow these talks closely and to learn about the society with which we will soon be free to engage and to learn from people whom we have failed to adequately understand. Yale has led engagement with Cuba in the past, and should do so again.
Josh Clapper is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.