The recent release of a Congressional Research Service memorandum confirms what those involved with Cuba already know: The drawdown of the American presence in Cuba has led to a decline in services for Cubans and Americans in Cuba and in the monitoring of human rights on the island.

The U.S. Embassy in Havana, which under President Barack Obama rose from a U.S. Interests Section to a full diplomatic station in July 2015, was reduced a short two years later to its lowest staffing levels since 1977 as a result of the so-called and still-mysterious “sonic attacks.”

The diplomatic drawdown has also resulted in a virtual travel ban for Cubans invited to participate in cultural, scientific and business exchanges in the U.S., as only emergency consular services are available to them under such short staffing.

Putting aside the questions surrounding these incidents, the indisputable fact remains that the U.S. is ceding its diplomatic leadership not just in Cuba, but worldwide. ABC News reports that 20 percent of diplomatic posts under President Donald Trump remain vacant, including in critical countries such as South Korea, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Trump has cut the foreign affairs service budget by 30 percent, with many career diplomats being replaced by political appointees. And the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which administers such landmark programs as the Fulbright, is under threat of massive cuts in Trump’s proposed 2019 budget. American soft power is not a priority under this administration.

Americans can and must step up as citizen diplomats abroad to repair our reputation and demonstrate the will of the people to continue international engagement. The urgency of this mission only increases as our borders become less open to outsiders. However effective any individual efforts may be, the best hope for our compromised image abroad may be our artistic organizations.

In light of the president’s recent inflammatory comments on South Africa, consider the recent two-week tour of that country by the Minnesota Orchestra, the first by a professional American orchestra. The schedule for the musicians included side-by-side rehearsals with youth orchestra musicians in Cape Town and Pretoria; educational programs for university students; a concert in Soweto, the “spiritual home” of the anti-apartheid movement, and a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony where Minnesota Chorale members sang the iconic “Ode to Joy” alongside singers from Johannesburg’s Gauteng Chorister.

The Minnesota Orchestra continues in its role as artist diplomat that began with its 2015 tour to Cuba.

The orchestra — collaborative, large yet mobile and team-based — can function as a de facto office of cultural affairs. One South African musician who participated in collaborations with American musicians last week described the collaborations to blogger and chorale member Scott Chamberlain: “They gave honest advice and suggestions, but it was clear that they were really listening to us and wanted us to reach farther than we knew we could. They respected us for that.”

Listening is the work musicians do best. Until traditional diplomacy becomes a priority again, cultural ambassadors can be both the mouthpiece and the earpiece of the United States. Dave Eggers wrote in the New York Times this year, “… with art comes empathy. It allows us to look through someone else’s eyes and know their strivings and struggles. It expands the moral imagination and makes it impossible to accept the dehumanization of others.”

Although the decline in American leadership abroad is discouraging, the conversation continues outside the halls of politics. Thus, the impact of cultural diplomacy becomes increasingly significant.

Art, exported, delivered and shared, is the vehicle through which we the people must continue to engage the global community.


Rena Kraut, of Minneapolis, is a musician.