U.S.-Cuba Sister City Alliances, Years of Subnational Diplomacy

Blog contributed by Mary D. Kane, President and CEO, Sister Cities International. Click here to view post on Medium. 

Sister Cities International recently partnered with The George Washington University’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication and the U.S. Department of State to produce a part of a symposium called Building Bridges: Strengthening Educational and Citizen Exchange Linkages between the United States and Cuba. This event explored how this shift in policy will promote more educational and cultural exchanges between Cuba and the U.S.

After five decades of closed doors between our two countries’ governments, it is no surprise that following the thaw in relations and recent opening of Embassies has resulted in a lot of buzz and excitement about leveraging this new relationship towards more peace and exchange between our countries. Over the past weeks, Sister Cities International has received an influx of inquiries from U.S. cities seeking Cuban sister cities angling to be the “first” with a Cuban partner. However, what surprises many, is that there are already nine partnerships in place, some of which have spanned decades. These partnerships have been implementing cooperative exchanges ranging from music and culture to humanitarian relief to educational exchanges

Although U.S.-Cuba diplomacy is just getting restarted at the national level, over the past five decades, sub-national citizen diplomacy has cultivated many ties between communities in both countries. The concept of citizen diplomacy­— that citizens have the right, if not the responsibility, to help shape foreign relations—is a helpful reminder that diplomacy does not begin and end at the federal level. People-to-people exchange has always been an essential first step to building mutual understanding and respect between nations and their citizens, not formal agreements. As we’ve seen time and again in the years since Sister Cities International was founded, governments (and even countries) come and go, but cities and their people remain. Only the continuity of relationships at the community level will ensure stability in long-term international relations.

Starting with Germany and Japan after World War II, Sister Cities International began facilitating relationships between cities in the U.S. and cities abroad in order to perform cultural, educational, technical, humanitarian, and business exchanges. Launched as a major Presidential Initiative by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Sister Cities International’s mission is premised on the idea that by forming these community-led relationships and promoting the exchange of individuals, people from different countries and cultures would learn from one another and develop mutually beneficial ties that would lessen the chance of new international conflicts. Today, there are 545 cities in the U.S. with over 2,100 sister city partnerships in 145 countries spanning six continents. In situations where national relationships have been strained, whether in Cuba, Russia, China, or any number of other countries, these links between citizens have been essential to countering the cycle of rhetorical barbs which so often precede saber-rattling and the march to conflict.

The first U.S.-Cuba sister city partnership was initiated between Mobile, Alabama and Havana, Cuba in 1993. Since then, exchanges, some of which took place outside of the U.S. and Cuba, have been conducted between these two countries, and sister city programs have ranged from medical supply donations and disaster relief to cultural awareness and university exchanges. One particularly active program is Boulder, Colorado and Yateras, Cuba, whose activities have included sponsoring the delivery of medical supplies and equipment, renovating community libraries, and protecting endangered species in eastern Cuba. After the normalization of ties in late 2014, Boulder-Cuba Sister City Organization President Spenser Havlick remarked, “Our visits over the years are not tourism per se, but rather people-to-people interactions…“It’s kind of like the Berlin Wall coming down in Latin America.” Now that barriers to interaction and travel have begun to break down further, citizen diplomats are looking forward to expanding exchanges and cooperation, and their commitment to maintaining contact even during the “bad old days” of U.S.-Cuba relations has helped build trust and respect that will pay dividends in the future.

We’ve already seen the benefits of citizen diplomacy in our relationships with Japan and Germany. The closeness of our nations has no doubt been helped by official diplomatic channels, numerous trade deals and treaties, but the slow and steady cultivation of these allies was most aided by the millions of interactions by everyday citizens representing their own views and their own communities.

This is why opportunities to work, study, travel, and interact with citizens in countries that are our nominal adversaries are so critical, whether it’s Cuba, Iran, Russia, or another country with whom ties are strained. As Eisenhower said, we need “…to work out not one method but thousands of methods by which people can gradually learn a little bit more of each other. How do we dispel ignorance? How do we present our own case? How do we strengthen friendships? How do we learn of others? These are the problems.”

We are delighted that political leaders have finally re-initiated official contact between our countries, but it’s certainly not the beginning of the relationship, and it won’t be the ultimate solution to how the people of Cuba and the U.S. can become stronger partners. Individual citizens as well as cities can and should continue to lead their governments by example.