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Ambassador Charles Shapiro Speaks at The Union Club; Amplify Peace: Supporting The Syrian American Medical Society Foundation" (SAMS)

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On Tuesday, October 24th, our second event was a Foreign Policy Forum about recent developments in U.S./Cuban policy put on by the "Cleveland Council of World Affairs" at the Union Club wherein the speaker was Ambassador Charles Shapiro who served as U.S. Coordinator for Cuban Affairs from 1999 to 2001.

Prior to the start of the program, we visited with Mr. Daniel Jacobson and Ms. Idola Herera from the Model U.N. Delegation at "Montessori High School" in University Circle and were very impressed to see that this program was attended by students from at least several other local schools including "Andrews Osborne Academy", "St. Edward High School", and "Mayfield High School".

We also chatted with Mr. Mark Boepple who we had met at several chamber of commerce events in the Westlake area and Miss Claire Applemans, a young woman who has worked with immigrants/refugees in locations such as Belgium.

During his presentation, Amb. Shapiro talked about how what has happened in Cuba since President Obama increased diplomatic relations in 2014 and President Raul Castro of Cuba allowed for some moderate economic reforms. In 2016, however, President Castro curbed these reforms using the excuse that the small businesspeople were corrupt and becoming too capitalistic and in 2017 President Trump said that he wanted to reverse the diplomatic policy which he wisely has not done as of yet. In fact, Amb. Shapiro credited President Trump with showing moderation pertaining to his response to the recent "sonic attacks" against U.S. diplomats in Cuba by only calling home some of our embassy staffers home but not severing progressive ties; at this time U.S. citizens are still free to travel to Cuba with the understanding that the embassy is understaffed so they might not be able to obtain the assistance that would ordinarily be there if problems should arise.

For us, Amb. Shapiro seemed like a person who was doing his best and succeeding in presenting a balanced view of Cuba and its government. We learned that it would definitely have to be classified as a police state and that the economy is unquestionably in shambles and reforms such as those initiated in 2014 are absolutely vital but the Cuban leadership is torn between necessary restructuring and its solid commitment to being true to the spirit/goals of the Cuban revolution back in the 1950's. Along these lines, it points to what it claims to be great accomplishments concerning society equality, education, and health care. But it is like the old saying about being stuck between a rock and a hard place because the Cuban society is aging in no small part due to the fact that if a young person of potential is able to get a visa to travel to another country to pursue a career, she/he will more than likely do it.

On the other hand, Amb. Shapiro acknowledged that Cuba is a beautiful country and its people are outgoing and willing to engage with visitors. He showed us some slides concerning friends that he had made there who are known as "cuentapropistas" or self-employed people that our culture would refer to as "entrepreneurs" but one can't use that term in Cuba. These people have done very well by restoring old cars, creating clothes, giving informational lectures about Cuba to tourists, repairing shoes, renting out rooms and by running limo services and restaurants mostly out of their own homes. Amb. Shapiro said that he believes that the U.S. should do whatever it can do to encourage such people and their endeavors because he believes them to be a key element in terms of a positive future for Cuba.

As we previously wrote, the Cuban government is now less than happy with these "cuentapropistas" but perhaps things will change when Mr. Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel, a sure bet to be the next Cuban president, takes office in 2018 but even here things are uncertain because no one really knows what stand he will take regarding economic reforms.

During the Q and A, we asked Amb. Shapiro what should the U.S. policy be towards Cuba. At first, he said that this was a big question to have to answer but we countered by saying that he had served in Cuba and seemed to really know the country, government, and culture so he was as qualified as anyone to speak on this topic.

He went on to say words very close to what he had once written on a Huffington Post blog series called "90 miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations". And from this we in part quote:

"Having diplomatic relations doesn't mean we like a country or its system of government. If that were true, I've got a long list of countries whose ambassadors we should toss. Full diplomatic relations is the norm in international relations. The absence of relations with Cuba is an anachronism from the days when Cuba was exporting revolution and hosting Soviet forces and their missiles. When relations are difficult is precisely the time when countries ought to have ambassadors in each other's capitals. That's when you want to ensure that you understand each other clearly and that the ambassador speaks for the president of his or her country."

 

After we left the Union Club, we headed over to the "Beachland Ballroom" on Waterloo Road to attend a concert whose proceeds would go to the "Syrian American Medical Society Foundation" (SAMS). The name of the traveling concert series was "Amplify Peace" and it was organized and performed by people who had a strong association with Syria by heritage and/or concern for its well-being.

Prior to music starting, we spoke to Ms. Naihal Wajid who is doing social media for this concert tour. Ms. Wajid told us that the goals of this concert series were to raise awareness of the damage caused by the Syrian civil war as well as funds so that SAMS could assist refugees, namely through art therapy for children traumatized by the war.

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Ms. Wajid introduced to Kayem, one of the performers, who talked to us for a few minutes. We learned that his father had been a democracy activist in Libya and had gone to prison for his efforts. Kayem had never been to Syria but spent time in Libya in 2012 when it was the only country open to Syrian refugees and could personally attest to their resilience and indomitable spirits. He noted that Syrian refugees were excellent workers and told us that there is even a saying in Libya that is "use a Syrian if you want to get it done!" so he believes, like we do, that more Syrian refugees should be allowed to enter the U.S. because they have the potential to enrich our society.

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Soon the concert started and, in addition to Kayem, we watched performances by such artists as Omar Offendum,  Ronnie Malley and the Tvrath Ensemble, and Bassel and the Supernaturals. All of their wide-range of musical selections originated in Syria and we were quite pleased to discover that the classical music was very easy to listen to (frankly we find some classical music a little boring) and that the rap/hip hop songs were quite fun.

Of course between selections, the performers spoke about their motivations for doing this concert. Mr. Offendum said that he felt a "responsibility" to assist an organization as worthy as SAMS because "it does a lot of good to help the vulnerable."

We learned that "Amplify Peace" traveling concert has already performed in Bloomington, Indiana; Chicago, Illinois; and Dearborn, Michigan. From Cleveland, it will travel to New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

No doubt about it, the efforts of these dedicated people can only do good.

 

Michael Patterson

Community Liaison,

Margaret W. Wong & Assoc. Co., LLC

 

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