News and analysis
June 04, 2015

U.S.-Cuba Thaw Is Making American Nonprofit Work on the Island Nation Easier

Center for Democracy in the Americas
Dean Hingson, Todd Novascone, Michael Kennedy, and Helen Tolar, chiefs of staff to members of the United States Senate, walk through the Plaza de Armas in Havana, Cuba, during a May 2014 visit to the island hosted by the Center for Democracy in the Americas.
As executive director of the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, Andrea Panaritis spent two decades funding projects meant to suture relations between the United States and Cuba. The $1 million-plus in grant making — to groups like the Cuban Artists Fund and the Center for Democracy in the Americas — was one of the few streams of American philanthropic dollars dedicated to the island nation.

"For many years this was a very lonely space," Ms. Panaritis said. "We were out there trying to beat the bushes for colleagues who might be interested in Cuba."

Her bush-beating days may be behind her. This year, Ms. Panaritis has fielded an average of five telephone calls and or emails a week about Cuba, "almost a landslide of interest both in the foundation world and in the world of individual donors," she said.

A move to re-establish diplomatic relations between the United States and its island neighbor — President Barack Obama announced the thaw on December 17 — is easing operational hurdles for some foundations and nonprofits working in Cuba or on Cuba-related issues. Simultaneously, the changes are both fanning and creating an outlet for pent-up interest in everything from the country’s arts and culture to its health-care system.

A half- decade ago, Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba sponsored six trips for American medical professionals to study the health-care system of the island nation 90 miles south of Florida. Last year, the Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit, known as Medicc, sponsored 12 such trips, and it already has 18 on the books for next year. Securing hotels rooms is becoming more difficult.

"The number of travelers that are going on each of those programs is also increasing," said Rachel True, director of programs at Medicc. "We are definitely seeing big demand."

During the last two weeks of January 2014, the specialty travel agency Marazul received 30 requests from faith-based, environmental, and other types of groups interested in traveling to Cuba, according to the company’s vice president, Bob Guild. During the same time period in 2015, the company fielded 1,300.

"We have been inundated with requests for possible groups," Mr. Guild said.

Limits Remain

The 55-year embargo of Cuba remains intact. Negotiations to re-establish formal diplomatic relations are far from over. After two days of meetings in Washington last month concluded without a resolution, Roberta Jackson, lead negotiator for the U.S. State Department, noted that "we still have a few things that need to be ironed out."

Center for Democracy in the Americas
Helen Tolar, Betsy Lin, and Dean Hingson, chiefs of staff for members of the United States Senate, enjoy a tour of Havana during a May 2014 visit to the island hosted by the Center for Democracy in the Americas.
 The severity of limits on travel and commerce has pulsed and receded since the suspension of formal diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961. Under President George W. Bush, strict limits on academic exchanges and other activities tied the hands of some nonprofits trying to work in Cuba or on Cuba-related issues. The administration eliminated what are known as the "people to people" option, which only required that individuals traveling to Cuba as part of preapproved groups engage in a full schedule of meaningful exchanges with Cubans. Instead, interested parties had to apply to the Treasury Department for narrowly defined licenses to send people or materials south. The application process could involve reams of paper and monthslong waits, if the licenses came through at all.

"We just never really understood why they would deny it," said Soledad Pagliuca of the Friendship Association, a Florida-based nonprofit that supports conservation and arts projects in Cuba. "Sometimes the reasons were so absurd they were just laughable."

Changes Under Obama

President Obama began to temper the restrictions almost as soon as he took office. General licenses for travel are now available in 12 categories, including activities of private foundations, humanitarian projects, and religious organizations. Cuba was removed from the U.S.’ list of state sponsors of terrorism in late May.

Those who work on Cuba-related grants emphasized that internal changes to economic and other policies in Cuba are shifting the landscape there in ways that are as dramatic, if not more so, than President Obama’s decision to reopen the U.S. embassy in Havana. Some expressed trepidation about what explosive private-sector development in Cuba could do to its people and its ecology. Among them is Kate Barnes, a program officer overseeing coastal and marine grant making at the MacArthur Foundation, which has made $17.9 million in Cuba-related grants since 1988 focusing on human rights and conservation. Ms. Barnes said that while she and her colleagues were elated about the decision to re-establish diplomatic relations, Cuba "has a really good history of protecting its natural resources, and that could decline with some of these changes."

Others point out that for all the buzz among U.S. foundations and nonprofits, it is unclear how much of it will translate into grants and programs. Mario Bronfman, the retired head of the Ford Foundation’s Mexico City office and an adviser on Cuba, said that he and his colleagues are also receiving inquiries about working in the island nation. The Ford Foundation has made $1 to $1.5 million in grants annually for Cuba-related work during the past decade.

"In a couple of months, we will know which of the foundations and nonprofits will maintain their interest," Mr. Bronfman said. "For the moment, the difficulties are still there, and working in or on Cuba is still far more difficult than usual grant making."

And there is also the issue of whether the Cubans want to see U.S.-based organizations in their midst.

"I think it remains to be seen how the Cubans will receive, or not, this new potential onslaught of U.S. foundations’ and organizations’ interest in working there," said Ms. Panaritis of the Christopher Reynolds Foundation.

Those who work on Cuba-related grants noted that Cuba is a sophisticated society with many things to offer. Organizations will need to learn the country’s peculiarities and how best to structure projects, they said.

Still, for all the unknown variables, the unfolding changes are being met with a lot of hope in nonprofit and foundation circles.

"I am hoping to notice changes in fundraising," said Mary Jo Adams, executive director of the Finca Vigia Foundation, which has worked since 2005 to preserve Ernest Hemingway’s house and personal documents near Havana. "I am hoping that U.S.-based foundations and individual corporations lose their fear and lose their anxiety, and say, ‘Boy, this is an interesting, fascinating country.’ "

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that the majority of MacArthur Foundation grantmaking in Cuba focused on conservation work. Much of the past work centered on human rights, while today the portfolio focuses exclusively on conservation.

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.