Diplomatic Pouch / December 3, 2015
By Larry Luxner
One year ago, USAID subcontractor Alan Gross languished in a Havana prison, Cuba was on the State Department’s terrorist list (along with Iran, Sudan and Syria), and no Cuban flag flew over the country’s quasi-diplomatic mission in Washington.
All that began changing on Dec. 17, 2014, when President Obama announced that, following months of secret negotiations, Gross had been freed in a prisoner swap for three convicted Cuban spies — opening the way to a resumption of the diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba frozen more than half a century earlier.
“What a difference a year makes,” said Colin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, one of half a dozen speakers at a Dec. 2 event celebrating the upcoming anniversary of bilateral relations between Washington and Havana.
The gathering, held at Washington’s Meridian International Center, featured a dazzling performance by Lizt Alfonso, Cuba’s premier dance company.
Founded in Havana in 1991 and managed by Juan Carlos Coello, the company specializes in a blend of classical ballet with Cuban and Spanish dance, such as flamenco and mambo — what Alfonso calls fusion dance, “a mixture of who we are and where we come from.”
The group, which has performed in major theaters on five continents — in venues from Seattle to Qatar — received additional stardom in 2014 by providing the choreography and dancers for the hit song “Bailando” by Enrique Iglesias, which has gotten nearly 1.2 billion views on YouTube.
Aside from running her professional dance company, Alfonso also has a school for 1,000 youth dancers and serves as an advocate for improved U.S.-Cuba relations.
Some 100 people attended the reception, including José Ramón Cabañas, Cuba’s ambassador to the United States; Alejandro N. Mayorkas, deputy secretary at the Department of Homeland Security; Daniel A. Sepulveda, deputy assistant secretary and coordinator for international communications and information policy.
Also on the guest list: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), a longtime opponent of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, as well as Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minnesota); Scott Parven, a partner with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, and Heather Higginbottom, deputy secretary of state for management and resources.
“A gathering like this probably would have been impossible a short time ago,” said Cabañas, who up until recently was not permitted to travel outside the Beltway without explicit State Department permission. “But now it’s possible, and I think the duty of all of us is to protect what we have right now and look to the future, considering the many differences we have and will have. We are different countries with different histories — but we share a real belief that we can build a better future.”
The red-white-and-blue Cuban flag now flutters proudly over the country’s embassy, located on Sixteenth Street only a few blocks from Meridian’s headquarters.
Likewise, the Stars and Stripes now flies above the U.S. Embassy in Havana — after a 54-year hiatus during which the two countries had either no relations at all, or low-level ties represented by “interest sections” attached to the Swiss embassies in each other’s capitals.
Stuart Holliday, Meridian’s president and CEO, noted that his organization has been around since 1960 (the year after Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba) and that it “builds bridges between countries and cultures.”
Interestingly, Meridian’s chairman, Carlos Gutiérrez, served as U.S. commerce secretary in the George W. Bush administration and was a staunch opponent of normalizing ties with Cuba until Obama’s historic announcement last year. In June, the Havana-born businessman acknowledged his initial skepticism in a New York Times op-ed titled “A Republican Case for Obama’s Cuba Policy.”
Gutiérrez wasn’t at Wednesday’s party, though another official of Cuban descent, Mayorkas, did attend — and spoke eloquently about its significance.
“Our administration is profoundly committed to the improvement of relations between the United States and Cuba,” he said. “A few weeks ago, I had the extraordinary privilege of making a trip to Cuba, the country of my birth. Neither my father nor my mother is alive anymore, and I never really thought of going back without them.”
Mayorkas, noting the “deeply personal” nature of his trip, told guests “the issue of normalizing relations is a complex one for the Cuban-American community. It need not be. Throughout my visit in Cuba, and since then, I understand why my father and mother loved the country and its people so much. I am extraordinarily optimistic about the future.”
So is Anya Landau French, senior policy advisor at Akin Gump.
“I’ve worked on U.S. Cuba policy for most of the last 15 years, so this is quite a special evening for me,” said the trade expert, who also worked at the Center for Democracy in the Americas as a senior fellow and currently edits The Havana Note. “Thank you for the pivotal role you played in getting us here.”
Cabañas laughed when someone asked him how he feels about the upcoming one-year anniversary.
“We don’t have time to think about how we feel,” he responded. “Only this week alone, we’ve had talks on migration and counternarcotics issues and a wonderful panel at the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. We are finalizing agreements and memorandums in the days to come before the anniversary. In the last 10 days, we’ve also signed bilateral agreements on marine protected areas and the environment. And we’ve just started a long-range dialogue on law enforcement.”
Several speakers also praised Leahy, 75, for his role in pushing for normalization of ties between Washington and Havana.
Among other things, the longtime Vermont senator — who helped secure the release of Alan Gross after the Maryland subcontractor’s five-year imprisonment on espionage charges — called the embargo “a discredited and counterproductive policy that in 54 years has failed to achieve any of its objectives.”
Said Mayorkas: “I would not be at this lectern as deputy secretary [of DHS] if it were not for Sen. Leahy and his support. I cannot think of a more shining example of the extraordinary footprint in so many lives that one individual can have.”