Art is a universal language. A dancer from Cuba can understand a dancer from New York City without ever speaking a word. A musical note sounds the same in New York City as it does in Russia. From dancing to music to painting, the arts unite people even in times of conflict. After nearly fifty years of isolation, cultural exchanges between the United States and Cuba continue to be a missed opportunity to close the divide. The United States has poured $20 million a year into pro-democracy programs in Cuba, with little political movement to show for it. In addition to these programs, the United States can promote cooperation, end isolation, and improve cross-cultural communications with Cuba by increasing the frequency of people-to-people cultural exchanges. This kind of engagement with Cuba is especially important because the Iron Curtain does not permit meaningful telecommunication exchanges with Cubans.
The late Milton C. Cummings Jr., an advocate for government funding of the arts, defined cultural diplomacy as "the exchange of ideas, information, art, and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding" in a 2003 paper, "Cultural Diplomacy and the United States Government: A Survey." It is a discourse or an exchange that yields compassion and an appreciation for another's view of the world. The London-based political think tank Demos offers this perspective, "cultural exchange gives us the chance to appreciate points of commonality and, where there are differences, to understand the motivations and humanity that underlie them." The arts stimulate creativity and compel people to consider a new perspective--the humanity of the "other"--without threat or direct confrontation. And because art requires ingenuity and initiative, it intrinsically challenges the status quo.
Cultural exchanges between the United States and the former Soviet Union accelerated the end of the Cold War. Oleg Kalugin, a former Soviet cultural exchange student with the United States, shared this perspective in an interview with Yale Richmond published in Cultural Exchange & The Cold War: Raising The Iron Curtain: "Exchanges were a Trojan Horse in the Soviet Union. They played a tremendous role in the erosion of the Soviet system. They opened up a closed society. They greatly influenced younger people who saw the world with more open eyes, and they kept infecting more and more people over the years." This testimony is a perfect example of how cultural diplomacy can disseminate the same values set by pro-democracy programs between countries.
As a young woman growing up in the United States, I personally experienced the powerful impact of cultural exchange. I was invited to train and perform with La Joven Guardia, the National Ballet of Cuba's apprentice company, during its …