By Mari Megias
October 28, 2015

When Bibi Hidalgo MPP 2000 wrote her Policy Analysis Exercise (PAE) on Cuban-American relations, she didn’t expect she would one day see the American flag rise over the US embassy in Cuba. But that is exactly what happened in August 2015 when she and fellow HKS alumnus Dan Erikson MPP 2001 were invited by the State Department to attend the emotional ceremony.

“I was brought to tears,” says the Cuban-American alumna, whose PAE focused on creating a safe space for discussion among the Cuban-American community regarding its relationship with the people of Cuba.

For a few decades, she says, a pro-isolation stance dominated opinion among Miami’s Cuban community. This made it difficult for people to express divergent viewpoints.

“Pretty much all debate related to policy toward Cuba was shut down,” she says. “I realized that it wasn’t a question of advocating within Washington for a different policy but that the decision really rested with Miami—that the president and Congress were influenced by what they heard from the Cuban-American community in Miami. I wanted to figure out why our community would only advocate for isolation,” which had had such a devastating effect on the lives of those who remained in Cuba.

Bibi Hidalgo MPP 2000Hidalgo’s parents, who married in the United States, fled Cuba in the 1960s—her father in 1960 and her mother in 1961—after the failed, CIA-supported invasion of the Bay of Pigs. They were both devastated to leave their homeland. Growing up, Hidalgo says it was hard for her and her siblings to “see my parents have a longing for their country and for us not to really know the roots of our identity.”

Her first visit to Cuba took place in 1992. “That was a life-changing experience. I started getting involved in policy issues, wondering whether isolation was effective or whether there was a better approach. And during that visit and later trips, I began to sense that the embargo was helping the regime.”

To better understand why Cuban Americans were overwhelmingly in favor of isolation, Hidalgo thought to leverage the convening power of the Catholic Church.

“Churches typically play a pivotal role in strengthening civil society, particularly in former communist countries such as Poland,” says Hidalgo. In addition, Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba had inspired her to think about the Church as a vehicle for change. “Pope John Paul II had declared that Cubans were the principal actors in their own personal and national histories,” she says. As a Cuban-American, she took this statement to heart.

For her PAE, she reached out to then-Bishop (now Archbishop) Thomas Wenski of Miami, who collaborated with her on her capstone assignment with the assistance of faculty members Julie Boatright-Wilson, Richard Parker, and Marshall Ganz.

“Working on the PAE taught me so much about leadership,” she says. “First and foremost, I learned the value of taking risks.”

After she completed her PAE, Ganz said to her, “'So, who’s going to actually facilitate the conversation?’ I didn’t know, but he said I had to!” So she took a risk and went back to Miami to facilitate conversation among Cuban-American leaders who had a range of perspectives, with the archdiocese as a principal partner. She also recruited her brother Patrick to help with the effort.

“The 28 Church leaders we worked with were exceptional,” she says. “They knew how to articulate a message of hope, and they had the will and determination. Our role was to conduct a very careful and deliberative process consisting of one-on-one meetings and small groups. I learned the hard way that you can’t start with a big group, especially when people have lots of different opinions. The meetings themselves were critical; they built up trust and mutual admiration.”

Hidalgo cites particularly the role of Church leaders in achieving consensus.

“The process worked because Church leaders in Miami developed the actual concepts. Our role was to make sure they worked collaboratively, recognizing their leadership and making sure that various perspectives had a voice.” She notes that when they finished, the change was extraordinary. “Nobody had seen language coming from Miami like this in decades, and it started to get the attention of people in Cuba.”

What resulted was an extraordinary process that became known as En Comunión—or In Communion—whereby the church and community leaders agreed on a common set of principles for building a mutually enriching relationship with Cubans on the island. These principles included promoting an intellectual exchange and overcoming mutual fears. Coming together on the document’s language was no small feat, given the self-censorship and opposing points of view within the exile community.

Dan Erikson MPP 2001 (L) and Bibi Hilalgo MPP 2000 (R)
Dan Erikson MPP 2001 (L) and Bibi Hidalgo MPP 2000 (R)

Hidalgo went on to work in Baltimore and later for the US federal government on issues related to housing and economic inclusion. Her brother Patrick, meanwhile, was inspired to attend HKS and receive an MPA in 2010. During Hidalgo’s time in DC, she reconnected with fellow alum Dan Erikson, with whom she’d written an article on Cuba while at HKS. Their passion for Cuba—Erikson worked at the State Department and had written a book on the island nation—was invigorated when the Obama administration announced, at the end of 2014, that it intended to normalize relations with Cuba. Less than a year later, Hidalgo and Erikson were in Havana to witness to the flag-raising ceremony. 

“It was pretty emotional,” says Hidalgo. “I was so pleased that the State Department had worked to figure out who’d been involved with this issue in some capacity over the years and brought us all together for the flag-raising experience.”

Although a great deal has been accomplished, Hidalgo says more work is necessary. “This is a time when we have to take a new approach, always with the mindset of improving the quality of life for the people in Cuba and ensuring there’s a bridge of understanding. Things can only improve from here.”