The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With dancers and cocktails, a Cuban ambassador tentatively begins cultural charm offensive

Members of the Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba perform. (Photo by Joyce Boghosian.)

So there are still lingering issues — and more than a half-century of Cold War chilliness — dividing the United States and Cuba, even though the two countries normalized their relationship in the summer.

But Wednesday night at the ornate Meridian House, it was evident that we’re in a new chapter in the Havana-Washington saga: Cuban dancers clacked their heels as a crowd that included members of Congress, State Department officials, business execs, and Cuban diplomats cheered on, glasses of wine in hand.

It was the kind of scene that happens all the time in Washington — a be-suited cocktail party crowd gabbing about the latest news and their weekends as they absorbed some international culture. Only this was a novel exchange for Americans and Cubans.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) snapped pictures of the Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba members, fresh off a performance at the Latin Grammys in New York,  as they shimmied past. Cuban ambassador José Cabañas greeted guests, including Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom and her husband, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Sepulveda.

“A reception like this probably wouldn’t have been possible some time ago,” Cabañas told the crowd. “We believe we can build a better future.”

Meridian International Center President Stuart Holliday said the venue was a natural spot for Cabañas to make one of his first forays into the world of cultural diplomacy — a U.S. organization that’s into “bridging cultures” offers a sort of soft opening for Cuban diplomats to begin their charm offensive. Holliday expects Cabañas to rely on his country’s music, dance and cuisine, as well as economic opportunities between the two nations as he begins his own delicate choreography: navigating the still choppy political waters and the anti-Castro sentiment held by many in the United States. “Culture and economics are always the leading edge,” Holliday said. “People can appreciate a country’s culture and do business there without necessarily agreeing with the government.”