We were deeply disappointed by President Trump’s announcement Friday to roll back many of the reforms initiated by the previous administration toward Cuba, and to freeze any further progress on others. Having witnessed firsthand what the possibility that forging closer ties can mean for our economy and society, we believe it is not in the interest of the United States, the American people, the Cuban people or the hemisphere to reverse the enormous progress made over the last two years.
We recently returned from a joint trip to Havana, where we met with officials of the Cuban government, university administrators, and leading scientific researchers. In every case, we found the principals on both sides encouraged by the progress made and excited about the opportunities for further collaboration.
Our visit included the signing of an historic agreement between Northeastern University and the University of Havana establishing two-way student exchanges and joint faculty research partnerships on pressing issues facing both nations. Following the signing, we met with several of Cuba’s most senior government officials. Our message was clear: these kinds of innovative partnerships are vital because they promote mutual understanding and keep us on a path to maintaining better relations between our two countries.
At the end of May, a bipartisan majority of 55 US senators introduced legislation to end the ban on Americans’ travel to Cuba, the counterpart to legislation Reps. McGovern and Mark Sanford have introduced in the House. Despite this and related efforts to increase trade with the island nation — including recent agreements between Havana and ports in Florida and Mississippi — the Trump administration will now limit opportunities for US business to open up new markets that would grow our economy.
In the face of this political uncertainty, nongovernmental institutions — particularly universities — are among the best vehicles to forge continued progress. Here’s why:
Shared values. Both sides share the view that higher education has two primary missions: to educate and to create knowledge. Neither can be accomplished without access to the entire world. The open flow of scholars, students, and ideas is a bedrock principle of higher education. Universities cannot do their jobs effectively if they shut out selected voices.
Global exchange promotes engagement. For students, the educational value of global experiences is immense. When they live and work in unfamiliar environments, students develop cognitive skills and cultural agility — the capacity to understand differing points of view and to operate comfortably in global situations. These are the unparalleled advantages Northeastern students participating in cooperative education positions at a Cuban nongovernmental environmental organization in Havana are gaining right now.
Commitment to solving common problems. Those who are inclined to close the United States off from the outside world should acknowledge a simple truth: Today’s world is bewilderingly complicated. Just as one researcher cannot master a fraction of the knowledge in her field, neither can one nation solve the complex questions that bedevil society and our planet.
Conversely, we have much to be gained from engaging with each other. Take the issue of coastal sustainability and resilience as one example. Boston and Havana are both cities situated on the sea. They face a common set of issues with respect to climate impacts, sea level rise, and coastal zone interactions. Researchers in Cuba and the United States are eager to learn from each other to develop common approaches to resolving these grand challenges.
Similarly, tropical and neglected disease research is another area ripe for cooperation. The Zika virus is an urgent public health threat that cannot be contained simply by building artificial boundaries. Experts from both countries must work together to build on Cuba’s success in limiting exposure to the virus while at the same time developing novel therapeutics that improve treatment for those who become infected.
After decades of counterproductive hostility between Cuba and the United States, we have witnessed significant cooperation and progress within a short window. In the absence of political leadership, civil society — through nongovernmental actors like universities — must continue to lead the way on public diplomacy. It’s now up to the American people and Congress to make sure America continues to move forward, not backwards, on US-Cuba relations. We’ve simply come too far to turn back now.
Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University. US Rep. James P. McGovern represents Massachusetts’ Second Congressional District.