October 1, 2013

In a rare visit by a high-ranked Cuban official to an American university, Cuba's top diplomat for North American affairs said President Obama should heed increasing public support in the United States for an end to the five-decades-old embargo.

Speaking at SIPA on September 26, Josefina Vidal — head of the Cuban foreign ministry’s North American department — cited polls and the recent U.S. presidential election results as evidence of a favorable conditions in American society for a new era of partnership.

“The Cuban-American community supported Obama in record numbers in 2012,” Vidal said, “and one of the reasons they did it was because they were supportive of the opening measures towards Cuba that he took in his first term.”

The event, “Cuba-U.S. Relations: Possibilities For The Future,” was organized by the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS).

Vidal has been a principal formulator of Cuban policy towards the United States since 1997 and remains a participant in ongoing talks with the Obama administration to seek further bilateral cooperation in immigration and communications. Conversations between the two Cold War enemies resumed this year after a three-year pause following the arrest of a USAID subcontractor, for bringing restricted communications equipment to Cuba.

Vidal said that her Caribbean nation is liberalizing economically, and that the government is open to expanding the dialogue to other areas.

“The U.S. is wasting opportunities to participate in the transformations taking place in Cuba that will provide interesting opportunities for American companies in areas like oil, telecommunications, and infrastructure,” she said.

Vidal also complained about the U.S. government’s reluctance to abandon measures she characterized as “hostile” and “offensive,” like the embargo and the inclusion of Cuba in the list of states that support terrorism.

“The U.S. is becoming more isolated in Latin America,” Vidal said. “Every leader in the region is asking the U.S. to end the embargo.

“Cuba and the US could gain a lot from a mutual relation based on common interests,” she added.

Regardless of the differences between the two governments, Vidal said, American culture is not foreign to Cuba. She said that Cubans watch American films and television shows and confessed to being a fan herself or series including The Newsroom and Gray’s Anatomy.

“No matter how much political animosity there is, Americans are not treated badly in Cuba,” she said, encouraging students to visit the island nation: While the U.S. government restricts its citizens from traveling to Cuba, students are allowed to visit the island as part of academic or cultural exchange programs.

Interestingly, the longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro visited Columbia University to meet with students and faculty —in 1959, before relations deteriorated. While formal relations between the United States and Cuba have been limited since 1961, Columbia has over the years hosted various senior officials from Cuba, including the country’s ambassador to the United Nations. Vidal is one of the most important players in bilateral relations today, and the point person for U.S.-Cuban relations at the Cuban Foreign Ministry.

Columbia has also had a formal academic exchange program with the University of Havana since 2010. Under the program, Columbia welcomes professors from Cuba for research purposes and helps visits Columbia professors visit Cuba for research. 

— Fernando Peinado, MIA ’14