Rick Cohen: Non-profits at the forefront of normalisation on Cuba

The groundwork laid by these groups will lead inexorably to a sane American policy on its island neighbour, writes our US columnist

Rick Cohen
Rick Cohen

President Obama's move to re-establish relations between the US and Cuba after five decades might not have come about because of pressure from US non-profits and foundations; these, however, have been laying the groundwork for normalisation for many years. A handful have consistently funded organisations that facilitates interaction between Cubans and Americans, and educated the latter about the logic of recognising a nation 90 miles away from Florida.

The Washington DC-based Arca Foundation has been the most active in supporting advocacy-oriented groups, such as the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank that favours diplomatic relations, and the Center for International Policy, a politically progressive institution committed to peace and human rights in the Americas.

The Ford Foundation acknowledges that former President Gerald Ford has supported advocacy and public education on US policy towards Cuba since 1978, not just through both the Lexington Institute and the 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 has been dedicated primarily to building relations between US and Cuban citizens and institutions. Its largest advocacy grants have been given to the CIP, but also to the Washington Office on Latin America, whose Cuba programme combined advocacy on diplomatic relations and human rights in Cuba itself.

The billionaire Chuck Feeney's Atlantic Philanthropies has supported a range of groups including Cuba Now, a political advocacy group that supports entrepreneurs in Cuba, and the Cuba Study Group, led by an ex-staff member of the Bush Jr administration.

These foundations have had to navigate political and legal obstacles to promote dialogue between the two nations because of the US economic embargo of Cuba. Some members of the US Senate want to frustrate Obama's plan. However, the movement advocating normalisation is not left-wing but bi-partisan, and includes business-oriented groups that think the US isolation of Cuba has been counterproductive and ineffective. The groundwork laid by these groups will lead inexorably to a sane policy on Cuba – including, soon, a vote by the Republican-dominated Congress to end the embargo.

Rick Cohen is national correspondent for the Nonprofit Quarterly in Boston, Massachusetts

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