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Despite pressure from exile groups, U.S. cities seek out 'sisters' in Cuba
CubaNews / July 2002

By Larry Luxner

Embargo or not, municipalities across the United States are rushing to set up sister-city agreements with their counterparts in Cuba -- often enduring threats from anti-Castro exiles in Miami. For now, the focus is on humanitarian and "people-to-people" contact, though in many cases the long-term objective is to get a foot in the door once normal trade resumes between the U.S. and Cuba.

So far, 14 jurisdictions have signed sister-city agreements with Cuba, with the list growing every month.

The first was Mobile, Ala., which twinned with Havana back in October 1993. The joint resolution establishing the sister-city relationship was signed by Havana's mayor at the time, Pedro Chávez, and by Michael Dow, who is still mayor of Mobile.

Since then, at least a dozen other cities in nine states from California to Maine have done likewise, establishing cultural ties with Cuban cities such as Camagüey, Mantanzas, Trinidad and Santa Clara (see map).

"We have history on our side," says Jill A. Shinault, secretary and treasurer of Society Mobile-La Habana, a non-profit organization supported by 100 dues-paying members. "The founder of Mobile, a French soldier named Pierre LeMoyne d'Iberville, died around 1720 and is buried in Havana."

It's not just history that links the two cities. With nearly 200,000 inhabitants, Alabama's chief port on the Gulf of Mexico hopes to snare a piece of the shipping business that's begun to flourish ever since U.S. food producers like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland were given permission two years ago to export agricultural commodities to Cuba on a cash-only basis.

"We're obviously a little hamstrung on the trade end, but we are working to change that and put the Port of Mobile and area businesses in a position to take advantages of opportunities once they open up," Shinault told CubaNews. "Virtually every other Gulf port is shipping to Cuba except ours. I personally don't understand all the logistics, but the director of the Port of Mobile is on our board of directors and is doing what he can."

In the meantime, Shinault and her volunteer organization have organized educational exchanges, sponsoring the Cuba booth at Mobile's annual International Festival and bringing Cuban doctors to Mobile to learn about U.S. health care.

"Until we lost our travel license, we were also taking groups down to Cuba," said Shinault, noting that the Treasury Department has rejected Mobile's application twice in the last year. "The first time, we were told it doesn't take 13 people to deliver humanitarian aid. The second rejection said we needed to submit more information, our complete itineraries and detailed biographies of everyone going."

Lisa Valanti, founder and president of the US-Cuba Sister Cities Association, said municipalities hoping to pursue sister-city arrangements with their Cuban counterparts face numerous hurdles because of Washington's policy of isolating the Castro regime.

"Ordinary people are frustrated," she told us. "All polls show the majority of the public feels it's time to move into the future, and that the Cuban-American exile community wields disproportionate power in shaping a foreign policy that is directly counter to the majority will."

Cuban exiles recently wielded that power in St. Augustine, Fla., which was founded in 1565 and is the oldest city on U.S. soil. For years, exile groups have made annual pilgrimages there to visit the grave of Félix Varela, a 19th-century priest who fought to free Cuba from Spanish rule. The priest, whose remains were eventually returned to Havana, lives on in the form of the Varela Project -- a petition drive signed by 11,000 Cubans demanding free elections and the end of one-party rule in communist Cuba.

"When St. Augustine announced it wanted to sign a sister-city agreement with Baracoa [a port city in eastern Cuba], people in Miami got wind of it and threatened to send busloads of people up there and be disruptive," said Valanti. In the end, city officials backed down and eventually abandoned the idea.

Similar threats have been made against municipal leaders as far away as Seattle, where King County is considering a partnership with the province of Granma. The protests are being orchestrated largely by the Cuban American National Foundation, which calls the sister-cities agreements a travesty of justice.

"These people are being terribly misled," says CANF Executive Director Dennis Hays. "They think they're helping, but in fact they're legitimizing a repressive regime. They accept all of the unsavory conditions that come with it -- racial discrimination, employee abuse by foreign investors, and the fact that it's a criminal offense for a Cuban citizen to criticize the government to a foreigner."

Hays told CubaNews that by signing agreements with Cuban municipalities, sister-city advocates hurt the very people they want to help.

"We've seen scant evidence that advocates of these programs care about anything other than perpetuating a failed regime," says Hays, a career diplomat who served as the State Department's coordinator for Cuban affairs from 1993 to 1995. "If they want to help, they should be reaching out to independent libraries, journalists and small businessmen struggling to feed their families."

Yet Valanti insists her group is apolitical. "We are not a solidarity organization with Cuba. We try to treat Cuba the same as we would any other country."

Valanti said she formed the USCSCA in 1998 because Washington-based Sister Cities International refused to recognize links between U.S. and Cuban cities due to the lack of diplomatic relations. In March 2001, SCI relaxed its policy, and as a result, she says, "we now have a fraternal relationship with SCI which did not exist before."

Because there are thousands of municipalities across the United States and only 169 municipalities in Cuba, some Cuban cities will invariably twin with more than one U.S. city.

Finding the right match is where Valanti's 600-member organization comes in.

"We're like a city dating service," she explains. "Americans, because of our policy of isolationism, know very little about Cuba. So we ask U.S. cities to provide a profile of their community and their interests. We then send that down to Cuba. They look at the city profile and decide where those initiatives would be of the most benefit."

To facilitate those efforts, a number of "partner cities" conferences have been held over the last few years as a means to support this fledgling network of municipal leaders. As a result, at least a dozen cities -- in addition to the 14 already announced -- are at various stages of sister-city agreements with their Cuban counterparts. Another 20 or so want to do likewise, but haven't yet chosen a Cuban city to partner with.

The idea is also catching on among states. In March 2001, Pennsylvania became the first state to "adopt" a Cuban province, in this case Matanzas. Valanti says six more states may follow suit: California, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, Vermont and Wisconsin.

In addition, the District of Columbia is exploring its options through the Washington, D.C.-Havana Sister City Project, a non-profit group supported by predominantly black Howard University.

"We are a coalition for peace and social justice comprised of D.C.-based groups seeking to establish and promote mutually respectful relations between these two capital cities," explains the organization's website. "We advocate the official twinning of our two cities through our respective local governments and work to establish people-to-people cultural exchanges in areas such as education, health, science, art, sports and youth development."

While no one expects Miami to jump on the sister-city bandwagon as long as Fidel Castro remains in power, other Florida municipalities seem intrigued by the long-term cultural and economic opportunities.

Manatee County, just south of Tampa, recently signed a twinning agreement with Manatí, in Las Tunas province. Gainesville -- a liberal college town in north central Florida -- is considering a sister-city agreement with Bayamo, capital of Granma province. Similar moves are being considered by Lakeland, a city of 80,000 located in the Florida citrus belt halfway between Tampa and Orlando.

Mayor Buddy Fletcher, mindful of Lakeland's rather significant Cuban-American population, says "I'm not sure we should bill our new relationships as an economic development venture. I'd rather see it described as a humanitarian venture."

And that's just fine with Rex Yentes, president of nearby Webber International University, which recently conducted an opinion poll on the subject. Says Yentes: "Human contacts start immediately to cut through the propaganda of the state whenever they are made."

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