Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A 'nuevo día' for US-Cuba relations

Tara Sonenshine, thehill.com

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Ninety miles separate America and Cuba. President Obama has managed to narrow that distance with a historic visit to Cuba — the first visit by a U.S. president in over eight decades. For those of us who believe in cultural diplomacy, educational diplomacy and the power of issues like health and science to bridge political gaps, it is a new day.

At the joint press conference at which Obama and President Raúl Castro answered questions from reporters, a historic feat in and of itself, the differences in America and Cuba were clear — especially around the definitions of democracy and human rights and the treatment of political dissidents in Cuba. But also on display were common agendas around trade, transportation, tourism and travel, in addition to joint action on prevention and treatment of the Zika virus, the Ebola virus and cancer. Most encouraging is the progress that was made on this visit to expand educational exchanges so that Cuba is part of America's 100,000 Strong in the Americas program, which will encourage scholars and teachers to go back and forth between our two countries.

From food diplomacy to sports diplomacy, there are new areas of engagement that are now opened by the formalization of relations between America and Cuba, despite the economic embargo that Obama is trying to end and argues will end. Despite the embargo, it is clear that business and commerce are already underway, with plans for direct airline flights, cruise ships and ferries. Even the Rolling Stones are getting into the act by offering a free concert in Cuba after Obama's visit.

Human rights must continue to be pressed as an issue in Cuba. It is commendable that Cuba will participate in a 2016 Human Rights Dialogue with the U.S. As Obama alluded to in his speech, there is much to be learned from each other's systems and we have to be "frank and candid" with the Cubans while also recognizing that America is not perfect.

Both Obama and Castro mentioned the American swimmer Diana Nyad, who swam her way between Florida and Cuba in 2013 without encountering sharks. It is a good analogy for the new relationship: It will be long and difficult, but worth the exercise.

Sonenshine is former under secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs.

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