Interview: CDA’s new executive director on the future of US-Cuba relations

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CDA Executive Director Emily Mendrala. Photo provided by CDA.

Emily Mendrala, the new executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), is stepping into the role during exciting times. Raúl Castro is expected to leave the presidency next year, and the Trump administration is conducting a full-review of U.S. policy towards the island. Mendrala will rely on her experience as a foreign policy advisor in President Obama’s National Security Council, State Department advisor, and staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to promote U.S. engagement with Cuba. Here are excerpts from our interview with the new head of the CDA.


What is CDA’s mission and why are you focusing on Cuba right now?

CDA’s mission is to promote a U.S. policy towards Cuba based on engagement and recognition of Cuba’s sovereignty. CDA was founded in 2006 by longtime Americas expert Sarah Stephens with an Americas-wide mission. But in December 2014, following the announcements from Presidents Obama and Castro of the intent to re-establish diplomatic relations, CDA shifted its focus to Cuba only.

Just so we’re clear: Is the Center for Democracy in the Americas an organization that advocates for a democratic Cuba?

The Center for Democracy in the Americas is focused on, as I said, a U.S. policy toward the island based on engagement. The organization has long held the view that it’s important for every member of a society to have a voice. And by engagement with Cuba and the Cuban people, we feel as though we are bringing the voice of the Cubans to the democratic process in Washington.

Why did you take the job as director of CDA?

This is an exciting time for Cuba policy! My professional background and experiences made me well-placed to lead an organization like CDA, with its mission to work with U.S. Congress, U.S. businesses, and U.S. civic groups and educate them about Cuba and the impact of U.S. policy on the island.

What can the U.S. and Cuba do to immediately improve relations?

I think in the short-term we need to preserve the gains that have come in recent years. We need to continue to advance legislation and efforts to lift the embargo and the travel ban. We have tremendous champions in the House such as Reps. Emmer and Castor. Ten of the 21 cosponsors of Emmer’s bill to lift the trade embargo have attended CDA-sponsored trips to Cuba. On the Senate side, we have long-standing champions in Sens. Leahy and Flake. And there is growing bipartisan support for policies and legislation to continue to advance engagement. And I think continuing the bilateral engagement between our two governments, continuing to put in the mechanisms of a normal bilateral relationship like law enforcement information sharing, for example, will continue to bring us together. It will continue to promote the recognition that engagement is not only in our best economic interest, but also in our national security interest.

 What are the long-term goals?

As far as the long-term goals of CDA, I’ll say that it’s simply to continue to lay the groundwork for a post-normalization relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.

Cruise lines have announced schedules to Cuba through the end of 2018. Which other U.S. industry do you think has momentum to make a big splash in Cuba in the near future?

CDA just recently took down a National Association of Manufacturers delegation that explored business opportunities specific to manufacturing. I know a number of the members of the delegation came back excited to explore links between their companies and Cuba. Most immediately apparent are the news articles we see about hotels. And Expedia announcing its online booking services for hotels in Cuba. This is just the beginning of a number of business relationships that I feel confident will spring up in the years to come.

Has the Trump administration invited your organization, or any of the allies you work with, in its full-review of Cuba policy?

Our organization expressed our views to the Trump administration via a couple of letters making the case that engagement, and a policy of engagement, is in our best interest.

What suggestions does the CDA have for the Trump administration as it crafts its Cuba policy?

First and foremost, that the policies of engagement announced and initiated in recent years would continue. That the pace and depth of bilateral engagement would continue. And we continue to reiterate that these policies are good for the U.S. They are good for Cuba. They are good for the American citizens. They are good for the Cuban people. And they promote U.S. economic interests as well as U.S. national security interests.

What hopes do you have for Raúl Castro’s planned departure from the presidency next year? Do you expect any significant political changes?

We’ve seen that the Cubans are united in their desire to continue engagement with the U.S., and united in their desire to work together with the U.S. on areas of mutual interest. Our focus at CDA is on U.S. policy, and promoting a U.S. policy that is in our best interest and that we feel is best for the Cuban people as well. And so our recommendation during these times of transition is that we continue to move forward on a U.S. policy of engagement.

Besides talk from politicians, what convinces you that Americans want to engage Cuba?

The poll data that I’ve seen makes clear to me that there is a growing interest among Americans to engage with Cuba. The number of visitors to the island has grown significantly in recent years. That’s a clear demonstration that interest remains high. The number of business delegations CDA has led for state and local level officials to explore ways that these states or cities can better engage and promote trade between the U.S. and Cuba. And so I think that’s just continuing to grow. And the more people travel, the more their interest has peaked, the more ideas for business collaboration, or civic collaboration, grows and will continue to grow.

What’s standing in the way of ending the embargo?

It could be the lack of awareness among our policymakers of the benefits of engagement between the U.S. and Cuba. The commercial benefits that could be accrued to U.S. citizens, were we to lift the embargo. The benefits that could be accrued to the Cuban people of increased travel by Americans to the island.

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