Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe with Patricia H. Kushlis

The U.S. and Cuba have been negotiating the terms for normalizing relations.  This means it’s not too early to think of what an appropriate American public diplomacy strategy might look like. 

The most visible stumbling block to the success of these negotiations (success being minimally defined as an exchange of ambassadors and the opening of embassies in the respective capitals) is that both sides seem to be asking for more than makes sense at this juncture: they want the end state before the opening moves, which isn’t the way most games are played.  US conservatives, for example, are demanding that Cuba be transformed into a human rights paradise before the agreement is signed and sealed.  Cuba wants Guantanamo back right now.  The U.S. is afraid to lift sanctions without an immediate tangible return.  Cuba is afraid the U.S. wants to mess around in Cuban politics.  Hard liners on both sides demand reparations.  

As a result, it sometimes seems as if the talks are a charade, complete with warring menus designed to sabotage any hope of rapprochement, while  credit is claimed for trying.  Probably, to move forward, each side will have to make a mild concession or two.  Why? To save face.  To placate those who prefer the status quo.  To demonstrate good faith.  Reciprocity is the name of the diplomatic game.  So is realism.  There was indeed a revolution in Cuba.  It can’t be undone, though further change is inevitable, most likely in a liberalizing direction, which will not please Castroites who prefer to dig their heels in.   On the other hand, change may be too slow and too future-oriented to allow Miami’s Little Havana anything like a victory march, which is good, from the PD point of view.  Triumphalism isn’t loveable.

Put It in Writing

In fact, from the PD point of view, it might be well if the negotiations’ end product included a side agreement concerning permissible cultural and information activities.   Specificity worked well during the Cold War, when distrust was maximal on both sides of the Iron Curtain.  A cultural agreement carefully conceived and well negotiated can benefit both parties, especially when radically different cultures and governments are involved.  Such a document, best viewed as enabling, not restricting, can pave the way toward better bilateral relations and more vibrant public diplomacy activities sooner or later.  A very important clause in any such agreement would allow American (and Cuban) diplomats  to travel freely, meeting—yes, freely—with people of all sorts.  In addition, non-official Cubans/Americans should be given unrestricted access to reopened embassies, to seek visas, to meet officials, to attend programs, to obtain literature.  If wishes were horses, we also would recommend the opening of an American Center in Havana, but the closing of innumerable, locally-admired, highly-respected institutions for short-sighted, post-Cold War financial reasons makes a revival, even as a showcase hands-across-the-water gesture in Cuba, unlikely.  

The All Important Context

In any event, should negotiations succeed, however slowly and painfully, what’s essential is that the State Department be primed to open the embassy doors on a coherent and comprehensive PD program.  Long and short term goals (hopefully with the national interest taking precedence over narrow concerns pushed by powerful lobbies and voting blocs) will have to be defined, but the initial top priority for PD must surely be trust-building.  The U.S. and Cuba have been at odds for fifty plus years, and accumulated issues will need to be identified and dealt with.   But there’s another, deeper problem that American PD strategists must face and not only in Cuba.   To put it bluntly, the reputation of the U.S. has suffered some serious blows in recent years.  

Once a not entirely perfect, but still widely-admired human and civil rights leader, the U.S. has yet to deal effectively with the torture issue which touches Cuba directly, via Guantanamo.  Not forgetting infamous allied sites, Gitmo is not only a U.S. navy base but a post 9/11 prison where detainees were, to put it mildly, mistreated and are still held.  Worse, American democracy itself seems to have lost some of its power as a paradigm. Washington remains in political deadlock, and U.S. politics seems to be drenched in money, much of it from unidentified sources, the result being that many Americans openly profess futility about voting.  Finally, capitalism and the free market system are under assault.  The great recession hurt many people in many countries, and inequality is reaching levels that worry many Republicans as well as Democrats.  Human rights.  Free markets.  Democracy.  These have long been the three strong legs of American PD, and their unexpected wobbliness is too obvious to ignore.  Given such vulnerabilities, the predictable pushback from Castro loyalists will be all too credible to Cubans whose access to objective information about the U.S. has been limited, despite the best efforts of Radio and TV Marti.

Truth Not Propaganda

Given the new realities, it seems to us that those broadcast entities, so strongly identified with the rhetoric of the Cold War, are now anachronistic and expendable. The dawning of a more open Cuba allowing greater American access to the Cuban people suggests that a successor Cuban broadcast service could easily be melded into a strengthened Voice of America.  VOA, despite its recent organizational travails, retains much of its well-earned reputation for reliable news and information about the U.S. and elsewhere.  Cubans would also appreciate a renewal of the brilliantly-curated  pop music programs which attracted devoted listeners around the world.  Pundits may not be happy to admit this, but an assertion of the right to listen to jazz often comes before a demand for other freedoms.      

Thus, America’s initial PD efforts in Cuba will have to be very carefully calibrated.  Messages must be truthful as well as positive.  Indeed, there are plenty of positive things to be said about America today, but the complexities are better recognized than glossed over.  

The Miracle of Cultural Exchanges

Under such fragile circumstances, America’s opening moves in Cuba should probably involve a mosaic of cultural exchanges that will, in the natural course of things, open the way to bolder, more substantive interactions with leaders, opinion makers and the general public. What kinds of cultural exchanges?  The gamut.  Exhibits featuring artists working in traditional and electronic media.  Readings by notable poets and fiction writers.  Music and dance performances.  Music, for instance, offers great potential for a spectacular program celebrating the restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.  For instance, how about a rip-roaring guitar festival featuring classical, rock and every style in between, with identical programs scheduled for sites in Cuba and the U.S., thus making people in both countries feel good in a strictly non-political way?   

Who, except the bean counters, could find anything wrong with a guitar festival?  The production process itself would allow innumerable Cubans and Americans to work together, not only in the process of putting live performers on stage, but in widening the impact through radio, TV, I-Tube and CD versions for those unable to attend in person, another big plus.

Intellectual exchanges are always trickier to manage because they cut closer to the political bones of contention, but even here early-phase reciprocal trust-building is possible.  The many options now available under the Fulbright program are easily adaptable for this purpose as are many well-honed programs for high school students.  Short term international visitor programs based on artistic and humanitarian interests should also be possible.  The U.S. is a leader in many fields, and Cuba is justly proud of its accomplishments when it comes to education and medicine.  These topics might provide excellent trust-building options, while visits and exchanges built around law, communications and governance might gradually be introduced.  And remember: even when “safe” subjects are the ostensible focus of exchange, people are always learning around the edges.

Professionalism Matters

This brings us to the realm of private and business travel, which are bound to proliferate.  The renewal of tourism and ordinary business visits will help to weave an ever-tighter network of interaction, which is all to the good.  However, while the U.S. should indeed facilitate such activity, it would be wise to maintain a certain skepticism about the romance of citizen diplomacy as a cure-all for international ills.   Ordinary citizens, including business people, are primarily interested in their own goals, which may or may not coincide with the national interest.  Tourism exists for well-earned private pleasure.  Big business is mainly interested in big profits.   It’s probably politically incorrect to say so these days, but their investments and enthusiasms are no substitute for skilled and well-targeted public diplomacy, especially in sensitive places like Cuba, where anti-Americanism has been a way of life for half a century.  Another fairly obvious caveat: covert operations must be rigorously distanced from PD programs, participants and officers.

The free flow of information necessarily lies at the core of any PD program, instrumentally and as a goal of Cuban reform.  No U.S. public diplomacy program can lack a plank that demands (or works toward) a free press.   Meanwhile, no PD program in the twenty-first century will succeed without the creative orchestration of an enormous spectrum of communications media and tools.  New and old  media.  Long and short form.  Broad- and narrow-casting.  Face-to-face and mediated.  One-on-one or via groups of various sizes.  All these modes of interaction have a place in a state-of-the-art PD strategy designed to reach every vital audience and every potentially influential contact.  While each medium has a distinctive voice and its own kind of feedback, each must also relay and reinforce messages consonant with a carefully calibrated public diplomacy strategy.  Still, the most sophisticated array of PD tools won’t work if the targets aren’t well chosen: individuals and institutions, officials and private citizens, opinion-makers and information-consumers.  In short, a well-constructed PD strategy sends the right message via the right medium to a continuously updated array of contacts—and then measures the impact so as to refine methodologies.

The Right People, The Right Program

The best strategy in the world can be undermined by mediocre execution.  We expect that the PD section of a new embassy in Havana will be staffed with a professionally-trained, well-prepared, deeply experienced cadre of PD people. This is no time for amateurs.  A mastery of Spanish goes without saying, but those who will be responsible for rebuilding the US relationship with Cuba should also be well grounded in Cuban history and culture.  However strongly America may be dedicated to supporting Cuba’s evolution into a democracy that respects human rights, Cuba will never turn into a clone of the American system.  Latin America and North America descend from vastly different legal systems and cultural patterns.  For the revived relationship to work in the twenty-first century, Cubans and Americans will need to feel that their distinctive cultures and ways of thinking are respected.  

As negotiations proceed, Americans who have been working so diligently on US-Cuba policy over the past decades will bring much of value to the table.  Others, including those who have served in Communist countries as well as those whose perceptions are free of such experiences, should also be added to the mix.  Realistic expectations, consummate professional skills and imagination—these are three strong, solid pillars upon which a powerful public diplomacy strategy may be built as the U.S. and Cuba reconnect.  Above all, at this point in history, it makes more sense to look toward the future than to dwell on the past.