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Pro-engagement group toasts with Cuban rum, prepares for uphill battle on future policy

Pro-engagement group toasts with Cuban rum, prepares for uphill battle
on future policy
BY NORA GÁMEZ TORRES
ngameztorres@elnuevoherald.com

WASHINGTON, D.C.
Amid the clinking glasses of Havana Club and uplifting speeches, the
smiles of the invited guests at this gala could barely conceal the
underlying concerns following Donald Trump’s electoral victory.

The gathering at the posh The Hamilton hotel, which drew more than 300
people, marked the 10th year anniversary of the Center for Democracy in
the Americas, an influential organization that has pushed hard to
improve U.S. relations with Cuba.

On the eve of the Nov. 8 presidential election, CDA Executive Director
Sarah Stephens said that after a period of adapting to a new U.S.
president, her organization would continue to focus on “passing
legislation on a bipartisan basis.” But on Sunday, with president-elect
Trump heading for the White House and Republicans still in control of
both chambers of Congress, her message was far more sober.

“We needed a night like this to celebrate, to celebrate what we have
accomplished and to recommit to the work ahead, knowing there will be,
sometimes, overwhelming obstacles, detours … but we can get through it
together,” Stephens told the audience at the fundraiser.

In other remarks, Carol Browner, former head of the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, told attendees it will be a “steeper” climb but
added: “In these last eight years, and because of everything that you
have done, working in a coalition, we have seen a tremendous progress
leaving behind the Cold War.

“Fixing the policy on Cuba is joyful, important work,” she said. “The
climb has become a little steeper, but I believe were are going to win,
for Sarah and the CDA.”

The left-leaning CDA was one of the key players in pushing to change the
public’s views on Cuba and to persuade the Obama administration to make
a 180-degree turn on its policy toward the island — which it did on Dec.
17, 2014 with the announcement that U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations would
be restored.

“Nothing just happens,” Stephens said about the Obama shift. “It was a
combination of advocacy organizations, academic organizations, Cuban
American involvement, foundations… it was definitely a collaboration,
an all around shared strategy,” she said. “And it combined with meetings
in the White House. It was not the only thing that influenced president
Obama but it certainly played an important role.”

Stephens has been especially effective at taking members of Congress to
Cuba, which is considered as an educational experience, not a lobbying
effort. As a non-profit, the CDA is forbidden by law from doing
“substantive” lobbying.

“I take a lot of members of Congress to Cuba, and I don’t sit with them
over dessert and tell them, ‘Please vote this way on this bill.’ That’s
not what the CDA does,” she said. “What we are trying to do is to put
them together with a broad range of people so they can ask whatever they
want and reach their own conclusions on the effectiveness of U.S. policy.”

Some Cuban dissidents have complained that after Obama’s changed U.S.
policy on Cuba, most of the U.S. groups that visit the island, including
groups of U.S. Congress members, no longer meet with them.

CDA and other organizations such as the Washington Office on Latin
America, the Cuba Study Group and the Brookings Institution were forces
in developing a narrative — embraced by the Obama White House — that it
was better to engage the island, and that self-employed Cubans rather
than dissidents were the best agents of change.

“As much as I respect some of the dissidents in Cuba, we have (a)
different theory … We believe that the people who are going to be
change-makers in Cuba are different people, are people who are, most of
them, working inside the system. And ultimately their voices and their
ideas are important for policymakers to hear,” Stephens said.

Although the CDA’s name includes the words “Americas” and “Democracy,”
its main web page says it “promotes a U.S. policy toward Cuba based on
engagement and recognition of Cuba’s sovereignty.”

Stephens acknowledged that some people consider the name to be “a little
misleading or confusing” but added, “We are huge advocates of democracy
… of what democracy stands for. But when we use that word, we are not
using it in the way some do, which is, we own the idea of democracy and
we are going to teach it to you.

“You hear a lot about democracy promotion programs. That is not our
approach to democracy,” Stephens added. “We are trying to do what we
believe democracy is, which is to create environments and opportunities
for everyone to be heard and have a voice.”

The CDA has organized more than 60 group visits to Cuba, and took a
bipartisan group of 19 members of Congress shortly after Obama announced
his policy shift in 2014. Stephens also organized visits by Govs. Andrew
Cuomo of New York and Terry McAuliffe of Virginia.

“Sarah is the ultimate networker between the U.S. and Cuba,” said Peter
Kornbluh, coauthor of the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History
of Negotiations between Washington and Havana. “She is a human bridge.”

Alan Gross, the U.S. government subcontractor freed from a Cuban jail
amid a spy swap in 2014, also praised Stephens for “aligning the stars
to make my liberation possible. She took a lot of Congress members to
Cuba, and I met with some of them.”

Manuel Gomez, a Cuban American public health professional who sits on
the CDA board of directors, highlighted the center’s work “taking a lot
of conservatives to Cuba, and changing their views.”

One clear example of building bridges was the invitation to Caleb
McCarry to speak briefly during the organization’s anniversary event.
McCarry was coordinator of the controversial Cuba “transition program”
launched by President George W. Bush and now sits on the staff of the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

McCarry carefully avoided commenting on Cuba policy, saying only that
relations with the island were “an old and very complicated issue. There
are deeply rooted views on both sides, but it’s important to talk.

“I imagine it couldn’t been easy for them to reach out to me, and I have
to say I was much impressed for their very professional and … passionate
way,” he said.

CDA’s efforts to win over allies from the other side of the debate
appear more urgent after Trump’s election. Stephens said the center will
now play a more active role promoting “reconciliation” between
supporters of engaging or isolating Cuba.

Some of the people at the fundraiser compared what might happen under a
Trump Administration to the 2001-2009 Bush administration, which limited
travel and remittances to the island. Trump has said he would reverse
Obama’s Cuba engagement.

“His position right now seems quite tough. He is saying he will roll
back all of this,” said Stephens. “I found it almost impossible to
believe it because it doesn’t seem like anyone would or could roll back
family travel, remittances and all the things that matter to Miami and
Havana.”

Others at the event said it was too early to make predictions. “No one
knows what’s really going to happen,” said WOLA Director Geoff Thale.

Carlos Gutierrez, a former U.S. secretary of commerce and a Cuban
American Republican who supports Obama’s Cuba policies, said Trump is
unlikely to take immediate action on Cuba because it is not a priority
for the new White House.

And what do Cubans think?

Singer and songwriter Carlos Varela, who performed at the event with
musician Dave Matthews, told el Nuevo Herald that it was “too early to
ask Cubans, busy with the day-to-day, for an opinion on Trump.”

Varela added that he nevertheless expects that “change will happen in
Cuba, independent of everything else.”

Before swooning the audience with his performance, Varela gave them this
message: “Maybe music does not change politicians, but it can touch the
hearts of people.”

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres

Source: Pro-engagement group celebrates 10th anniversary amid
uncertainty over Cuba policy | Miami Herald –
www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article115519573.html

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