Interview by Circles Robinson for www.havanatimes.org
While Cuba-US government relations have fluctuated from cold to icy over the last 50 years, a citizen’s movement has kept the candle burning between communities of the two neighboring countries. Several US cities have sister city relationships with Cuban counterparts, the effort often spearheaded by individuals who based on their own experiences believe that such an exchange is mutually beneficial.
On the eve of the US elections, Havana Times interviewed Lisa Valanti, the national president of the US-Cuba Sister Cities Association.HT: What was the first US city that established an official sister city relationship with a Cuban city? What was the last?
LISA VALANTI: The first U.S. city to establish an official sister city relationship was Mobile, Alabama. The relationship was the inspiration’ of City Archivist, Jay Higginbotham, who happened to discover an old treaty between the Port of Mobile and the Port of Habana in the city archives that preceded the U.S. embargo. So Jay, and a group of forward-minded Mobil residents, simply used that pre-existing treaty as the legal foundation of their sister city effort, and formed the Society Mobile-La Habana.
Jay had been previously active in forming a sister city with a community in the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, and understood how people-to-people exchanges could defuse, or at least add perspective to runaway political hysteria.
The last sister city to form an official relationship was Ann Arbor, Michigan with Remedios in the province of Villa Clara. I think it might be interesting to perhaps feature different relationships since many of them have existed for almost two decades now.HT: Are sister cities only a formal relationship that entails occasional visiting delegations and speeches about fraternity or is there more to it?
LISA VALANTI: A sister city, county, region, or state relationship is a broad based, officially sanctioned, long-term partnership between two communities, towns, cities, counties, regions, or states in two countries.
Sister city partnerships have proven to be more effective than any other international program in carrying out the greatest possible diversity of activities because they are naturally inclusive of every type of municipal, professional, business, educational, humanitarian, scientific, and cultural exchange or project.
Sister city programs are unique in that they concurrently engage the communities’ three main sectors: local government, business, and a variety of citizen volunteers representing every sector within the community.
So, they are very complex, diverse and inclusive in their potential, although the blockade has hindered their potential. Still, we are committed and plan to outlast the blockade.What makes a sister city relationship official? Do unofficial ones also exist?
LISA VALANTI: A sister city becomes ‘official’ when it is officially adopted by a formal resolution in the local government, that creates a sustainable bilateral partnership. A sister city is always an expanding ‘work in progress,’ and yes, people can state their intentions to create a sister city and work for years to build that partnership until they are able to get official sanction. They are unofficial, or ‘engaged’ until they ‘marry’.
Most of the original sister cities took a decade of community organizing to succeed in getting approval from our local governments. The whole process became almost standardized for sister cites formed after 1999, when we formed the national organization. We were able to give them advice and mentor new initiatives. So much so that we think it was the eagerness of ordinary people in the U.S. wanting to embrace an end of the blockade, and wanting to create mutually beneficial community exchanges that made Bush determine to sever and end people-to-people diplomacy.How does a sister city relationship go about being established. What does that entail?
LISA VALANTI: It starts when a person or group decide they want to create one. Each sister city has a unique story, and builds as it gains support, person-by-person, institution-by-institution. It reflects local people finding issues in common to build relationships on. U.S.-Cuba sister cities have been initiated by US communities, and by Cuban communities that have reached out to US communities.Has Cuba been receptive to your “citizen diplomacy”?
LISA VALANTI: Cuba has been very supporting and receptive to all of our efforts. Actually, Cuba has been the stronger partner, because they actually represent their community and can dedicate resources to the relationship, whereas US residents are totally impeded by US policy, especially under the Bush regime.What’s the difference between a sister city relationship and a Cuba-solidarity group?
LISA VALANTI: Sister Cities don’t involve themselves in Cuba’s internal affairs. Rather than ‘solidarity’, we seek to show respect for the human right of self-determination by the Cuban people to build their society without outside intervention of any sort. We seek to exchange ‘best practices,’ and explore our differences, looking for ways we can learn from each other and support each other, but adopting a authentic good neighbor policy, which means we respect the local communities with which we partner. We try and maintain political neutrality, and partner simply as equal shareholders in humanity’s future.What’s it been like on the US side to get an official sister city designation with a city in a country the White House calls its enemy?
LISA VALANTI: We don’t accept that designation of Cuba, nor its population. We challenge stereotypes. For instance, the Cuban flag flies every day in the Pittsburgh City Council Chambers, because Pittsburgh and Matanzas have been officially partnered for over ten years now. Sister cities refuse, and actively work to defuse, the demonization of Cuba and its government. Cuba is part of our global family, and our firsthand experiences help inform our communities not to fall for US propaganda.Has the travel ban and stepped up blockade blocked all sister city activity or has some exchange been able to slip through the cracks?
LISA VALANTI: Since a sister city serves as a local ‘umbrella’ group, and is a diverse entity, many facets of sister cities have still found ways to maintain their relationships with our counterparts, mostly in healthcare, sister churches, and some educational exchanges. They share their experiences with the rest of the community, and help support and sustain those people who want to expand into currently forbidden arenas.The US cities have far more material resources than their Cuban partners. Is the relationship a one-way street or do the Cuban counterparts have something to offer their US partners?
LISA VALANTI: In general, US cities don’t really have more accessible resources. Because of the blockade they can’t use them to develop their relations with Cuba. So Cuba has really invested more in supporting these relationships, until we can end the blockade. Since these relationships are being built with upon the idea of permanence, in time, as policy changes, US cities will invest more. But there is the exchange of ideas, and we have much to learn from Cuba.Could you tell me a few anecdotes of how the sister cities have had an impact on peoples’ lives both in the US and Cuba?
LISA VALANTI: I have never met a person who hasn’t had their life changed in some profound manner by a visit to Cuba. Sometimes, what changes is people’s thinking about how we live in the US, and our own relationship to our government. Sometimes it helps us understand that many people in the world live differently than we do in a first world nation.
For me, I now devote my entire life to ending the blockade of Cuba, and have made friends that are as dear to me as my family; we have become a ‘blended family.’We just had two pretty serious hurricanes hit Cuba causing widespread damage, what was the response from sister cities in the US?
LISA VALANTI: USCSCA has put out a call to collect humanitarian aid, and so far we have contributed over four thousand dollars to Global Links that is working with PAHO and the Ministry of Health to provide urgent aid. We are also supporting Pastors for Peace and many of our local sister cities are actively collecting aid targeted for their sister city. Again, hurricane relief is long-term, it will take years to fully recover, and we hope to be working in partnership with our sister cities to restore and repair targeted hospitals, etc. over at least the next two years.Is your position a paid full-time job, part-time, or totally volunteer? Are there other paid staff and how do you get your funding?
LISA VALANTI: USCSCA is a 100% volunteer organization. We labor for love. Our membership and supporters pay small dues, and we fundraise for special projects.We know that sister cites are non-partisan. Nonetheless, with the US elections right around the corner I’d like to ask your personal opinion on a couple things. Some people here in Cuba say that on foreign policy there is nothing that resembles a Republican more than a Democrat and expect little change in policy? Others see a ray of hope if Obama wins. How do you see it?
LISA VALANTI: Because Obama was a constitutional lawyer, I believe if Obama wins, he will restore in increments, US residents freedom to travel, remove limits on remittances, and those two acts will create a public constituency that will demand new openings and policy changes. Since the blockade is older that Obama, I think he will find ways to defuse the Cold War rhetoric, and do what he can to begin to open channels for communication; coast guard, disaster management, immigration, etc. I think we can restore at least the status quo of the Clinton administration. If we can lift just the travel bans, people will demand normalization.Do you see much at stake regarding Cuba-US relations with Tuesday’s elections?
LISA VALANTI: Yes, I think McCain will continue to demonize Cuba to rationalize more US resources for military adventurism, and maintain the blockade. I think Obama will respond to the public will IF people in the US can make visible the issue of Cuba. Obama will offer possibility, McCain the status quo.