President Obama did not suddenly decide to reestablish diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba after five decades because of pressure from nonprofits, though nonprofits have been doggedly laying the groundwork for normalization in a variety of ways. The immediate catalysts behind last month’s announcement were probably USAID subcontractor Alan Gross’s declining health in a Cuban prison and the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Panama. The American press gave plenty of coverage to Gross, in jail for having distributed satellite phones and computer equipment to Cuban citizens without required permits from the Cuban government. Gross was in Cuba working for a firm called Development Alternatives funded by USAID to promote democracy in Cuba. Cuba declared Gross a spy involved in spying, which USAID has done before and since, including the ill-fated USAID-funded ZunZuneo program with another contractor, Creative Associates International, which was criticized across the political spectrum in the U.S. as pretty silly and stupid. Whatever one thinks about Cuba and its control of its citizens’ access to the Internet, Gross had violated Cuban law, was in jail for many years, and reportedly was in declining health.

Less well covered in the American press was the Summit of the Americas, hardly able to break into the 24-hour news cycle, but a big deal among the nations of Central and South America. The upcoming summit in Panama would be the seventh held since 1994. Usually, America’s compatriots in this hemisphere would disinvite Cuba from the summit in order to keep the U.S. at the table, but this time around, they didn’t, leaving the U.S. with the prospect of sitting this gathering out. In fact, apparently the other Latin American countries had threatened empty chairs if Cuba were not invited to the upcoming summit in April. If the U.S. had attended without acting to recognize Cuba, according to Brookings fellow Richard Feinberg, it would have placed President Obama in the awkward position of chatting and negotiating with the head of Cuba, Raul Castro, despite their lack of formal diplomatic ties. The alternative would be just as unjustifiable, the world’s strongest democracy unable to explain its boycotting the summit simply because one seat would be occupied by Cuba.

The background story is that at the U.S. State Department, staff have long advocated reestablishing ties with Cuba, much as a small number of U.S. nonprofits have suggested through direct advocacy and through exemplary programming. As a longtime advocate of normalization with Cuba, Albert J. Fox, noted in a conversation with Nonprofit Quarterly, “no one could argue with me that the government of Cuba was more oppressive than Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Yemen,” but those are all nations that the U.S. recognizes and deals with. Fox’s organization, the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, seems to have operated largely as a one-man show since he started it in 1998, apparently eschewing foundation grant support, but it is one of a handful of nonprofits that have tenaciously pursued the normalization of diplomatic ties with Cuba since the U.S. cut relations five decades ago. Fox doesn’t come across as a policy wonk or a left-wing ideologue, but rather approached the issue due to a personal experience. His mother came to the U.S. when she was ten months old, long before the advent of Fidel Castro and his communist regime. For her 80th birthday, Fox wanted to take her back to Cuba for a visit and found himself “just shocked and stunned that I couldn’t go as an American.” As he explained to NPQ, the Alliance emerged from his personal experience encountering obstacles that he hadn’t been aware of during his time as a Capitol Hill aide in Washington that simply didn’t make sense.

Just like Fox’s Tampa-based nonprofit, American nonprofits and foundations have been laying the groundwork for normalization for many years. A handful of foundations have been consistent leaders in providing grant support to organizations that facilitated interactions between Cubans and Americans and educated Americans about the logic of recognizing a nation a mere 90 miles away from the state of Florida:

  • The Washington-based Arca Foundation has been the most active in supporting advocacy-oriented groups over the years, including the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank that favored diplomatic relations chaired by former Republican Congressman Jim Courter, and the Center for International Policy, a politically progressive institution long committed to peace and human rights in the Americas, once chaired by Democratic Senator Tom Harkin. Much of Arca’s Cuba-oriented grantmaking was overseen by its former CEO and now Democratic Congresswoman from Maryland, Donna Edwards.
  • The Ford Foundation greeted President Obama’s announcement with an acknowledgement that Ford has supported “advocacy and public education on U.S. policy toward Cuba [since] 1978,” not just through both the Lexington Institute and CIP, but also through Beyond Conflict, which has convened meetings in Miami with Cuban-American leaders to explore models of reconciliation with Cuba.
  • The Christopher Reynolds Foundation in Boston had been dedicated primarily to building relations between American and Cuban citizens and institutions. Most of its largest advocacy grants seemed to have gone to CIP, but also to the Washington Office on Latin America, whose Cuba program combined advocacy for normalized diplomatic relations and improvement of human rights in Cuba itself.
  • Billionaire Chuck Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies has supported a range of groups, including Cuba Now, a political advocacy group with a strong interest in supporting entrepreneurs in Cuba, and the Cuba Study Group, headed by a former staff member in the administration of President George W. Bush. Unlike the other foundations, Atlantic’s support has reached 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, as both Cuba Now and the Cuba Study Group are structured, as opposed to the typical array of 501(c)(3) groups supported by Arca, Reynolds, and Ford.

There have been other funders in the mix of philanthropies supporting diplomatic relations and academic and artistic exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, but not a lot. Because of the longstanding U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, these foundations and the groups they have supported have had to navigate a variety of political and legal obstacles to promote dialogue and exchange between the two nations. According to Mario Bronfman, who manages the foundation’s portfolio for Central and South America, “Due to the complex political environment, managing this portfolio has been challenging. It isn’t possible to make direct grants to Cuba, and so our work there has meant contending with difficulties procuring licenses and legal permissions, along with the assorted pressures that come with being one of few funders to support Cuba-related projects.” It wasn’t just the embargo. Cuba is on the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation it received in 1982. That had to have dissuaded some foundations, which might have viewed grantmaking related to Cuban issues as simply too much trouble.

What makes the “state sponsor of terrorism” designation so counterproductive is that the U.S. has long had fruitful (albeit unpublicized) interactions with Cuba, including on issues of terrorism, as was recently documented in Back Channel to Cuba, co-authored by Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive and William LeoGrande of American University. These contacts, which started during the Kennedy administration and continued through all succeeding administrations, included Peggy Dulany, David Rockefeller’s daughter, carrying a message from Fidel Castro to President Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz. Dulany is well known to many nonprofits for her philanthropic work, her role running youth and employment projects at the New York City Partnership (founded by her father), and founding and currently chairing the Synergos Institute, which promotes and supports collaborations among business, government, and civil society to address poverty and inequality. But the back channel connections have addressed a wide range of issues, even including Cuba’s assistance to the U.S. regarding issues of international terrorism. 

Because of the constraints involved in a lack of diplomatic relations, the terrorism designation, and the economic embargo, Cuba has presented a challenge to the handful of foundations involved in Cuba-related grantmaking, leading to a broad range of strategies. In some cases, as in Atlantic’s support, the funding went to organizations empowered to engage in partisan political work. In others, it went to groups engaged in nonpartisan public policy advocacy, lobbying, and public education, as in the work of CIP. But in many cases, the foundations supported groups that simply related and connected U.S. nonprofits—and American citizens—to their Cuban counterparts, in the interest of creating engagements and exchanges to open both countries to the positive possibilities that could emerge from normalization.

For example, the Foundation for Normalization of US-Cuba Relations pitched the justification for diplomatic relations between the two countries as opening new markets for the agricultural products of American farmers, sharing healthcare technology with Cuba, tapping the fuel production potentials of Cuban sugar cane biofuel, generating new levels of tourism, and cooperating with Cuba to track and attack narcotrafficking. The benefits of technical exchange are reflected in the work of Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC), whose executive director, Pierre LaRamee, happened to be in Cuba leading a group of members of the U.S. Congress and medical experts on a fact-finding tour examining Cuban approaches to diabetes prevention and management. LaRamee told NPQ that MEDICC is explicitly not an advocacy organization and “stays away from politics.” However, MEDICC’s work on connecting American health workers to the techniques and lessons of the Cuban public health system have involved over 2,000 Americans learning about Cuba’s approaches to healthcare.

In LaRamee’s terms, it wasn’t that MEDICC advocated for normalization, but it contributed to normalization by demonstrating some hint of the practical benefits that could emerge if the two nations interacted, well, normally. No one, including LaRamee, presents Cuba’s health policies as ideal, but he points out that the Cuban focus on prevention, the guarantee of free universal access, and the presence of a doctor and a nurse in every neighborhood do have important lessons as the U.S. tries to deal with the problems of disparities affecting underserved urban and rural communities. LaRamee suggests that Cuba achieves a significant amount of cost savings because, “we have a sick care model, [but] they have a health care model.”

While members of the U.S. Congress might have wanted to squeeze out contacts between the two countries, some American foundations knew better, exemplified by a recent $350,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to MEDICC to further explore the Cuban public health model’s applicability to four U.S. communities—South Los Angeles, Oakland, Albuquerque, and the Bronx. An expansion of MEDICC’s program in American communities, called Community Partnerships for Health Equity, is in the works with other cities such as Milwaukee, Summit County (OH), and four California communities that are part of the California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities program. MEDICC’s big funder over the years has been Atlantic Philanthropies, but other supporters of MEDICC’s work have been the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, the latter two having funded issues of MEDICC’s research magazine, the MEDICC Review: The International Journal of Cuban Health & Medicine. Though Rockefeller’s support was for two issues of the Review in 2010 and 2011, Ford’s is much more recent—in 2012, 2014, and an issue slated for publication in October 2015.

Luly Duke founded Fundación Amistad in 1998 with a mission of “fostering better mutual understanding and appreciation between the peoples of the United States and Cuba.” Duke says that the organization has supported 140 projects in Cuba, which have included research and books, visits by U.S. architects and planners to witness the historic preservation programs in Old Havana, and academic projects. Duke told NPQ by email, “I feel that each of these projects, and all our visits to Cuba and meeting professionals has contributed to pave the way for the normalization of diplomatic relations,” suggesting that, like MEDICC, the nonprofit’s contribution to normalization was through trying to create opportunities for normal bilateral connections between the two peoples.

In reality, the political range of support for a diplomatic reconciliation between the U.S. and Cuba has been surprisingly diverse. Earlier in 2014, a number of nationally prominent people signed an open letter to President Obama calling for him to make connections between groups like Fundación Amistad and civil society organizations in Cuba more possible, including actions such as expanding opportunities for travel to Cuba, allowing U.S. nonprofits to more easily connect with and support Cuban civil society (including the import and export of goods and services between U.S. and Cuban entrepreneurs), facilitating productive dialogue around issues of mutual security (which, it was hoped, would lead to the release of Gross), and making it possible for U.S. financial institutions to process financial transactions related to authorized and licensed activities. The signatories included Brig. Gen. John Adams (former Deputy U.S. Military Representative to NATO), Bruce Babbitt (former U.S. Secretary of the Interior), Byron Dorgan (former U.S. Senator from North Dakota), David Rockefeller, John Negroponte (former deputy secretary of state and former Director of National Intelligence), Jane Harmon (former Congresswoman from California), Dan Glickman (former Secretary of Agriculture), Hilda Solis (former Secretary of Labor), and Adm. James Stavridis (Supreme Allied Commander of NATO from 2009 to 2013). While the letter didn’t go so far as to specifically call for reestablishing diplomatic relations, it did note that “the U.S. is finding itself increasingly isolated internationally in its Cuba policy,” which the recommendations listed in the letter, all intended to be within the president’s powers through executive orders, could help rectify.

As Albert Fox put it, “the genie is out of the bottle” as a result of President Obama’s announcement. Duke’s statement to us was that the president’s decision reflected “a sentiment of ‘out with the old, in with the new’ in regards to our relationship with Cuba,” which she partially attributed to the increased interest of young people in both countries for connection and exchange and the younger generation’s lack of memories of being exiled, on one side, or attacked on the other. Fox’s comments to NPQ basically agreed with Duke’s, that the hostilities between the two countries five decades ago are no longer relevant or motivating for young people in the U.S. and Cuba today.

Nonetheless, despite the president’s diplomatic action, the economic embargo is still in place, and members of the U.S. Senate, notably Democrat Bob Menendez from New Jersey and Marco Rubio from Florida, have pledged to do what they can to frustrate the president’s plan. The intransigence of these two legislators may finally no longer control how the U.S. Congress behaves toward Cuba. Both Fox and Duke acknowledged the significant roles of Congressman (now Senator) Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, and Senator Pat Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, in laying the groundwork for the President’s decision. Fox believes that Menendez and Rubio will find themselves without many allies if they try to block the president, including Menendez’s threat of not approving whomever Obama might nominate as ambassador.

Organizations such as MEDICC exist, in part, according to LaRamee, with the premise of overcoming the constraints posed by the embargo, which, he said, presented numerous obstacles, exacerbated at times by the “capriciousness” and sometimes-“draconian” application of the rules by the Treasury Department. Duke made that clear in a statement she gave Nonprofit Quarterly:

​“While I am ​thrilled that the conversation between my two countries has begun during my lifetime (it has been the goal of Fundación Amistad to help establish a new relationship between the Cuban and American people since it’s [sic] inception in 1998), I remain cognizant of the fact that this only the beginning. I hope and pray that both nations will continue to forward this relationship by putting the people first, and doing what is best for the positive growth of our respective cultures and societies. For the US, this means moving forward toward fully dismantling the embargo, and removing Cuba from their list of countries supporting terrorism, thereby easing fears Americans may have that Cuba is any kind of threat.”

However, the variety of groups that have been in the forefront of normalization are actually not solely left-wing activists, but are distinctly bipartisan, including many business-oriented groups that find America’s isolation of Cuba to have been counterproductive and ineffective. The groundwork of these foundations and the nonprofits they have funded has created an inexorable movement toward a sane policy toward Cuba that will include, soon, the Republican-dominated Congress voting to end the embargo. Any number of political issues—plus the intervention of Pope Francis—clearly made this the right time for President Obama to start the process of diplomatic normalization with Cuba. But nonprofits such as CIP, MEDICC, Fundación Amistad, and Washington Office on Latin America laid the groundwork of connections from the top down, bringing U.S. politicians to Cuba, and from the bottom up, bringing academics, doctors, and others to meet with their Cuban counterparts, plus the advocacy and public education necessary to undo fifty years of studied isolation of Cuba.