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Bridging the Gap

February 03, 2017

“The most effective way to bridge our differences is through dialogue.”

Mark FeiersteinMark FeiersteinThis was the overarching theme of ASU’s 2017 E. James Holland-Roy A. Harrell Jr. Foreign Affairs Speakers Program, with this year’s topic focusing on the relationship between the United States and Cuba.

On his first stop since ending his tour in the White House two weeks ago, Mark Feierstein, former director of western hemisphere affairs for the National Security Council, headlined this year’s program Jan. 30-31, speaking on U.S. relations with Cuba since Fidel Castro.

Armed with a passion for international affairs and, as he said, a little bit of luck, Feierstein served as former President Obama’s principal advisor on Latin America and the Caribbean.

“I actually wanted to be a journalist,” Feierstein said. “I intended to be a foreign correspondent. Then the job offers I had were more attractive in other fields of international affairs, and I’ve been fortunate enough to do that for 30 years now.”

Feierstein gave two public lectures over his two-day visit to campus. His first lecture, “Behind the Scenes: Bridging the Gap to Cuba,” focused on the policy changes leading up to re-establishing ties with Cuba in 2014.

“The message is how we implemented former President Obama’s mandate to pursue engagement over isolation,” Feierstein said. “Engagement would be a more effective policy than isolation in trying to both promote political reform and help the Cuban people.”

“I want students to see that we shouldn’t be afraid to sit down with our adversaries. We may not agree on everything…but we have areas where we agree, and we can collaborate”

Mark Feierstein

Through historical references, Feierstein went on to discuss how previous policy was designed to isolate Cuba, but ultimately it was the U.S. that was being isolated. While Cuba is still wary of the U.S., more interaction is occurring between Americans and Cubans. Since the re-establishment of diplomatic ties, Feierstein explained how travel has increased to the area. While recreational travel to Cuba is still prohibited, access to the country and its people has increased significantly.

“It’s more economical to travel to Cuba now than before,” he said. “Tourism is still banned, but you can still engage and have meaningful interactions with the Cuban people if your travel fits within the 12 categories of allowed travel.”

In his second lecture, “U.S. – Cuba Relations after Fidel Castro,” Feierstein discussed the increasing public support for engagement as opposed to a policy of isolation.

“There are a more diverse set of voices in Congress,” he said, “as well as strong support from Cuban Americans. We tried a policy of isolation for 50 years and it failed. It’s time for a new approach, one that is more consistent with what the rest of the world is doing.”

Citing examples such as working together to combat the Zika virus, smuggling and drug trafficking, Feierstein continued to stress that in order to bridge our differences, there must be dialogue. Better relations with Cuba also benefits the United States’ relations with the greater Caribbean and Latin American communities.

Mark Feierstein taking questions from the audience at his Jan. 31 lecture in the C.J. Davidson Conference Center.Mark Feierstein taking questions from the audience at his Jan. 31 lecture in the C.J. Davidson Conference Center.In addition to his public lecture sessions, Feierstein spent plenty of time in the classroom, speaking to students all over campus. He also attended a banquet with members of the ASU Honors Program.

“It’s personally enjoyable to engage with students,” he said. “They ask great questions and come from a diverse set of backgrounds. There are certain assumptions I may have in my head, and they challenge those. It’s mutually beneficial.”

Feierstein also encourages students to take advantage of the airlines that now provide service to Cuba since educational visits are listed as one of the 12 allowed travel categories.

“I want students to see that we shouldn’t be afraid to sit down with our adversaries,” he said. “We may not agree on everything, and with Cuba obviously we have profound differences – different political systems, different economic systems. We have strong differences over the issue of human rights.”

“But that being said,” he continued, “we have areas where we agree, and we can collaborate.”

  • Brittney Miller

    Brittney Miller

    Brittney Miller is a marketing specialist at Angelo State University.
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