Amid the clinking glasses of Havana Club and uplifting speeches, the smiles of the invited guests at this gala could barely conceal the underlying concerns following Donald Trump's electoral victory.
The gathering at the posh The Hamilton hotel, which drew more than 300 people, marked the 10th year anniversary of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, an influential organization that has pushed hard to improve U.S. relations with Cuba.
On the eve of the Nov. 8 presidential election, CDA Executive Director Sarah Stephens said that after a period of adapting to a new U.S. president, her organization would continue to focus on “passing legislation on a bipartisan basis.” But on Sunday, with president-elect Trump heading for the White House and Republicans still in control of both chambers of Congress, her message was far more sober.
“We needed a night like this to celebrate, to celebrate what we have accomplished and to recommit to the work ahead, knowing there will be, sometimes, overwhelming obstacles, detours … but we can get through it together,” Stephens told the audience at the fundraiser.
In other remarks, Carol Browner, former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told attendees it will be a “steeper” climb but added: “In these last eight years, and because of everything that you have done, working in a coalition, we have seen a tremendous progress leaving behind the Cold War.
“Fixing the policy on Cuba is joyful, important work,” she said. “The climb has become a little steeper, but I believe were are going to win, for Sarah and the CDA.”
Fixing the policy on Cuba is joyful, important work...The climb has become a little steeper...
Carol Browner, former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
The left-leaning CDA was one of the key players in pushing to change the public's views on Cuba and to persuade the Obama administration to make a 180-degree turn on its policy toward the island — which it did on Dec. 17, 2014 with the announcement that U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations would be restored.
“Nothing just happens,” Stephens said about the Obama shift. “It was a combination of advocacy organizations, academic organizations, Cuban American involvement, foundations... it was definitely a collaboration, an all around shared strategy,” she said. “And it combined with meetings in the White House. It was not the only thing that influenced president Obama but it certainly played an important role.”
Stephens has been especially effective at taking members of Congress to Cuba, which is considered as an educational experience, not a lobbying effort. As a non-profit, the CDA is forbidden by law from doing “substantive” lobbying.
“I take a lot of members of Congress to Cuba, and I don't sit with them over dessert and tell them, 'Please vote this way on this bill.' That's not what the CDA does,” she said. “What we are trying to do is to put them together with a broad range of people so they can ask whatever they want and reach their own conclusions on the effectiveness of U.S. policy.”
Some Cuban dissidents have complained that after Obama's changed U.S. policy on Cuba, most of the U.S. groups that visit the island, including groups of U.S. Congress members, no longer meet with them.
CDA and other organizations such as the Washington Office on Latin America, the Cuba Study Group and the Brookings Institution were forces in developing a narrative — embraced by the Obama White House — that it was better to engage the island, and that self-employed Cubans rather than dissidents were the best agents of change.
“As much as I respect some of the dissidents in Cuba, we have (a) different theory … We believe that the people who are going to be change-makers in Cuba are different people, are people who are, most of them, working inside the system. And ultimately their voices and their ideas are important for policymakers to hear,” Stephens said.
We believe that the people who are going to be change-makers in Cuba are different people, are people who are, most of them, working inside the system.
Sarah Stephens, CDA executive director
Although the CDA's name includes the words “Americas” and “Democracy,” its main web page says it “promotes a U.S. policy toward Cuba based on engagement and recognition of Cuba’s sovereignty.”
Stephens acknowledged that some people consider the name to be “a little misleading or confusing” but added, “We are huge advocates of democracy … of what democracy stands for. But when we use that word, we are not using it in the way some do, which is, we own the idea of democracy and we are going to teach it to you.
“You hear a lot about democracy promotion programs. That is not our approach to democracy,” Stephens added. “We are trying to do what we believe democracy is, which is to create environments and opportunities for everyone to be heard and have a voice.”
The CDA has organized more than 60 group visits to Cuba, and took a bipartisan group of 19 members of Congress shortly after Obama announced his policy shift in 2014. Stephens also organized visits by Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Terry McAuliffe of Virginia.
“Sarah is the ultimate networker between the U.S. and Cuba,” said Peter Kornbluh, coauthor of the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana. “She is a human bridge.”
Alan Gross, the U.S. government subcontractor freed from a Cuban jail amid a spy swap in 2014, also praised Stephens for “aligning the stars to make my liberation possible. She took a lot of Congress members to Cuba, and I met with some of them.”
Manuel Gomez, a Cuban American public health professional who sits on the CDA board of directors, highlighted the center's work “taking a lot of conservatives to Cuba, and changing their views.”
One clear example of building bridges was the invitation to Caleb McCarry to speak briefly during the organization’s anniversary event. McCarry was coordinator of the controversial Cuba “transition program” launched by President George W. Bush and now sits on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
McCarry carefully avoided commenting on Cuba policy, saying only that relations with the island were “an old and very complicated issue. There are deeply rooted views on both sides, but it's important to talk.
“I imagine it couldn’t been easy for them to reach out to me, and I have to say I was much impressed for their very professional and … passionate way,” he said.
CDA's efforts to win over allies from the other side of the debate appear more urgent after Trump's election. Stephens said the center will now play a more active role promoting “reconciliation” between supporters of engaging or isolating Cuba.
Some of the people at the fundraiser compared what might happen under a Trump Administration to the 2001-2009 Bush administration, which limited travel and remittances to the island. Trump has said he would reverse Obama's Cuba engagement.
“His position right now seems quite tough. He is saying he will roll back all of this,” said Stephens. “I found it almost impossible to believe it because it doesn't seem like anyone would or could roll back family travel, remittances and all the things that matter to Miami and Havana.”
...it doesn't seem like anyone would or could roll back family travel, remittances and all the things that matter to Miami and Havana.
Sarah Stephens, CDA executive director
Others at the event said it was too early to make predictions. “No one knows what's really going to happen,” said WOLA Director Geoff Thale.
Carlos Gutierrez, a former U.S. secretary of commerce and a Cuban American Republican who supports Obama's Cuba policies, said Trump is unlikely to take immediate action on Cuba because it is not a priority for the new White House.
And what do Cubans think?
Singer and songwriter Carlos Varela, who performed at the event with musician Dave Matthews, told el Nuevo Herald that it was “too early to ask Cubans, busy with the day-to-day, for an opinion on Trump.”
Varela added that he nevertheless expects that “change will happen in Cuba, independent of everything else.”
Before swooning the audience with his performance, Varela gave them this message: “Maybe music does not change politicians, but it can touch the hearts of people.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres