Meridian’s Cultural Diplomacy Forum on Cuba takes a closer look at culture, society, preservation, economic development and exchange

On Thursday, June 9th, Meridian International Center hosted its first annual Cultural Diplomacy Forum, which focused on Cuba. The program featured 25 speakers and over 100 leaders from the diplomatic community, civil society, business, government, and philanthropy. The dialogue focused on several timely and relevant subjects, including cultural and educational exchanges to showcase life and society in Cuba; economic development and entrepreneurship; and the balance of economic growth opportunities with cultural heritage and preservation.

Ambassador Stuart Holliday, President and CEO of Meridian, kicked off the event by providing opening remarks and welcoming Cuban Ambassador José Ramon Cabañas. Ambassador Cabañas took the stage to signal an optimism and enthusiasm for the future in U.S.-Cuba relations in his framing remarks, noting that the burgeoning American tourist industry is a reflection of the affinity the American and Cuban people share for each other. Amb. Cabanas also acknowledged the established networks of artists, scientists, and preservation experts that have existed between the U.S. and Cuba long before the normalization process. He noted that people-to-people exchanges are really what began dialogue between both countries. Event Chair Adrienne Arsht, Executive Vice Chairman of The Atlantic Council, segued from the Ambassador’s speech to note the important work that her Latin America Center has done for the normalization process. She commented on the warm spirit of the Cuban people, having been dubbed an “honorary Cuban” during her time in Miami. Immediately following her speech, former Secretary of Commerce and Chairman of Meridian’s Board of Trustees, Carlos M. Gutierrez, added a few remarks on Cuban-American friendship and the future of Cuban-American ties.

The first panel was moderated by Collin Laverty, an expert on Cuban-American relations and President of Cuba Educational Travel, a travel company that organizes trips for Americans to Cuba and for Cubans to the United States. Executive Director of Cuba Skate Miles Jackson, visual artist and community arts educator Michelle Angela Ortiz, Dr. Richard McIntyre of the University of Rhode Island, and Lynn Roche, former Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Mission in Havana, all spoke to the use of cultural and educational exchanges to showcase life and society in Cuba. The enlightening conversation explored the role of people-to-people exchanges in shedding light on Cuban society and daily life: through skating culture, mural arts exchanges, study abroad, and government-sponsored programs. The speakers all echoed Amb. Cabanas’ idea that the relationship between both countries really begins with people on the ground – an important part of Meridian’s work.

Renowned Cuban-American artist Septime Webre, Artistic Director of the Washington Ballet, commented on the rich history of the arts (and more specifically, ballet) in Cuba. He shared how the networks of artists and theater directors have been the primary form of partnership and dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba for the last several decades. The historic visit of the Washington Ballet to Havana in 2000 was a notable reflection of this facet of the Cuban-American relationship.

A second panel focused on prospects for economic development through entrepreneurship and policies that promote cultural tourism. Foremost Cuba experts Tomas Bilbao and Dr. Richard Feinberg, as well as businesswoman and Mission Critical Technologies CEO Beata Stylianos, discussed in rich detail the growth of entrepreneurship and the private sector in Cuba, as well as the economic impact of the recent influx of American tourists. The panel was moderated by Carlos Gutierrez, Jr., Co-Chair of the Cuba Practice at Clark Hill PLC.

Congressman Tom Emmer (R-MN), having recently introduced legislation to end the American trade embargo on Cuba, discussed the benefits of continued normalization. He noted the mutual values shared by the Cuban and American people and the exchange of culture that has long existed between the two countries. He also highlighted his experience in visiting Cuba and the benefits of reconsidering the economic policy towards the island nation.

To continue the conversation, Jose Fernandez of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher facilitated a dialogue with Sergio Leon, Cuban entrepreneur and Chief Technology Officer of Ke Hay Pa’ Hoy, a digital media platform that disseminates information on cultural and entertainment in Cuba. Mr. Leon spoke to his experience as an entrepreneur in Cuba and his successes in establishing this company.

Following suit, Jodi Bond, Vice President of the Americas for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, underscored the flourishing middle class in Cuba and recent growth of private capital. She also discussed U.S. economic involvement and the changes that normalization will bring.

Ben Rhodes, a close senior of aide of President Obama and one of the principle architects of the Obama Administration’s policy towards Cuba, then took the stage to provide a speech on recent developments in Cuban-American relations. Mr. Rhodes signaled an enthusiasm and optimism for the future of Cuba and the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, a sentiment echoed by many speakers and attendees. The Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting commented on the importance of cultural exchanges and the value of continued collaboration between both countries.

The forum ended with a panel examining how to balance economic growth opportunities with cultural heritage and historic preservation activities. Elizabeth Newhouse, Director of the Cuba Project at the Center for International Policy, moderated the discussion that included former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, President/Chief Conservator at RLA Conservation Rosa Lowinger; M(Group) partner Hermes Mallea, Director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council Peter Schechter, and Corporate Philanthropic Strategies Manager at the Caterpillar Foundation Jennifer Zammuto. The experts discussed the inevitable post-normalization economic growth that will come to Cuba and how this growth can enhance and contribute to architectural, cultural, and artistic preservation in Cuba. The Caterpillar Foundation, a partner in the Cultural Diplomacy Forum, has been instrumental in supporting the The Finca Vigía Foundation, a U.S. non-profit working in collaboration with Cuban cultural preservationists and other donors to restore and preserve Ernest Hemingway’s home, documents and historical artifacts in Cuba.

The day culminated in an elegant evening reception featuring Cuban food, dance, and music. Mojitos flowed freely at the cocktail reception, while Cuban-American band Orishabo performed traditional Cuban songs while Company E Dance Company provided the footwork. Bren Herrera of Flamboyant Eats also provided a cooking demonstration. The day showcased Meridian’s multifaceted approach to cultural diplomacy.

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