Whoever said “less is more” was just, well, wrong . . . in this case.

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Cultural exchanges have always been an important element of expanding one’s knowledge about countries throughout the world. While certain countries may possess different political ideologies, religious beliefs, or speak different languages from the United States, “intercambios” allow citizens to become familiar with everyday people from cultures that are different from ours. And knowing the people encourages understanding and peaceful co-existence. For countries that are polar opposites on the political and/or social spectrum—like Cuba and the United States, for  example—exchanges  between students, artists, faith groups, farmers, sports teams (fill in your own community here) help humanize the “other.” And in more cases than not, these exchanges assist all parties to find common ground and shared experiences, despite outward differences.

As history shows, the political relationship between Cuba and the United States has been volatile, to put it simply. Unfortunately, this governmental relationship has also hindered exchanges between different cultural groups on both sides of the Florida straits; the separation has increased suspicions, criticisms, stereotypes, and even bold-faced lies. Our two nations’ squabbles and tit-for-tat policies have had a trickle-down negative effect on what could be remarkable cultural exchanges. Last year, for example, the New York Philharmonic was not granted U.S. Department of the Treasury licenses for its patrons to attend the planned show in Havana, which resulted in the cancellation of the entire trip for the full orchestra. While Cuban parties and U.S parties would love to be able to travel and see their counterparts, from whatever cultural base, restrictions regarding U.S. travel licenses and Cuban visas usually leave a trail of lingering headaches, along with a list of follow-up “cancellation” phone calls. However, dedicated people have kept pursuing the permission still needed from our government to travel to Cuba; and they continue to look for opportunities for exchanges between Cubans and U.S. citizens. Once the nightmare of paperwork is over, it is always well worth the effort.

Recently, the Washington, DC’s New York Avenue Presbyterian Church (congregation), the Presbyterian Church USA’s Washington Office (denominational level), the Latin America Working Group, and the Washington Office on Latin America sponsored a lunchtime talk by three women from the First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Havana who had received U.S. visas and who had come to visit their sister Presbyterian parishes in the United States, one of them being NY Avenue. They shared their experience about the changed circumstances surrounding the Church in Cuba. Sandra Santos, the president of the Fellowship of Young People and the director of the church choir; Ivis Rosales, an elder in the church and vice president of the young adult fellowship; and María Greysis Suárez, an elder as well as the superintendent of the Sunday School discussed the struggle of promoting the principles of the church among youth in Havana, with which the Washington Presbyterians could also identify.

“There’s curiosity among the young people… Many university students wonder why their friends are going to church, and wonder what it has to offer them. I believe it’s the social programs and projects that we offer that are attracting the youth. We provide social services and psychological services. We also have a library, and all of it is free. Along with the music and the young people’s programs, we have four community baseball teams. These teams aren’t only for church members but for members of the community. And so what happens is that kids join the baseball team and then many of the kids end up attending the church; this is a way for us to spread our principles. We’re very grateful for the support [of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church], and the teams show a result of the progress the church is making.”

The expansion of the Presbyterian Church into the greater Havana community shows how the daily life of Cubans is changing. In the early post-revolution society, freely associating with organized religion was not allowed. Now, however, church groups are allowed to meet for worship, Bible studies, youth groups, and can involve other community members, similar to churches here in the United States. While the politics of our two governments continues on a rough path, it is the exchanges between the people that help clearly portray the reality of people’s lives in both nations—a reality that has been muddied by politics.

Additionally, this past weekend famous Cuban jazz pianist, Chucho Valdes, performed in Washington, DC; and earlier this month U.S. musician Wynton Marsalis gave a concert in Havana. All of these exchanges help promote a greater understanding so sorely lacking between our governments about the reality of Cuban and U.S. politics—and about the lives people of both countries. So while more concerts take place, and cultural exchanges become more frequent, we strongly urge our government officials to recognize the possibility for improved relations through people meeting people, and to allow travel for all.  The more exchange we can have, the better!