Earlier this week I attended an event at the Brookings Institution called “U.S.-Cuba Relations: Moving Policy forward in 2011 and Beyond,” that was organized in light of the Obama Administration’s move to expand academic, religious and people-to-people exchanges between the United States and Cuba earlier this year. The panel of speakers included former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson; Patrick Kilbride, the senior director of the Americas Department at the U.S Chamber of Commerce; and Stephen Propst, partner at the international law practice of Hogan-Lovells U.S., LLP.

To help determine what exactly falls within the realm of the President’s authority on relations between Cuba and the United States, Propst presented an analysis he recently conducted of relevant U.S. law and the legal boundaries of the President’s authority. The analysis reveals that the President can take further steps to expand the avenues for exchange between the United States and Cuba. The President is granted this authority under laws passed by the U.S. Congress that encourage action on the part of the United States to support democracy building and humanitarian efforts in Cuba.

In mapping out a way forward for the American and Cuban governments, Governor Richardson (who has made multiple diplomatic trips to Cuba in his career) spoke to the necessity of tackling humanitarian and social issues first, in order to establish a starting point from which to discuss more divisive challenges later on.  Governor Richardson also expressed a desire for future interactions between the United States and Cuba to move forward -- regardless of what the other state is doing -- instead of relying on reciprocity or taking action on a “quid pro quo” basis.

Echoing Governor Richardson’s message, Kilbride said that establishing democracy and rule of law in Cuba can only be realized through an initial engagement, and that “more contact between the two countries would act as a catalyst for change.” NAFSA and international educators would agree, as we know that public diplomacy has been one of the most effective tools in U.S. history for engaging with closed societies and encouraging the transition to openness and democracy. Already, study abroad providers and universities in the United States are contacting institutions of higher education in Cuba to begin the process of establishing new avenues of academic exchange to help pave the way for what will hopefully be the dawn of a new era of expanded relations between the United States and Cuba.

Learn more about the recent changes made by the Obama Administration to expand academic exchanges to Cuba.