Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Was the Minnesota Orchestra’s trip to Cuba good diplomacy?

The short answer is yes. But there is a major caveat: Cultural exchanges only matter when both governments involved want them to matter.

The Minnesota Orchestra performing in Havana earlier this month.
Photo by Travis Anderson, courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra

The Minnesota Orchestra recently returned from a highly publicized and well-received trip to Cuba that has left many people in both countries feeling good about improving relations between Cubans and Americans, as well as their governments.

In the grand scheme of things, though, does one concert tour – or a high-profile sports event – matter much when it comes to healing decades of suspicion? Do we delude ourselves when we think that a rush of feel-good moments can add up to something more? 

The best answer seems to be that, yes, such events can be important. But there is a major caveat: They matter when both governments involved want them to matter.

In this case, the evidence suggests that both Washington and Havana are interested in better relations. So this visit is likely to have a small place when the history of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement is written.

Article continues after advertisement

A few examples from recent U.S. history help bolster that conclusion. Here is a short list of concert tours that also served diplomatic purposes. In fact, using non-governmental arts or sports organizations has become one of the standard tools leaders employ to try to nudge relations forward, particularly when the path of straight-ahead diplomacy is too difficult.

Non-governmental contacts are most likely to be useful when internal politics makes a more direct approach impossible, or ideology leads citizens on both sides to demonize each other.


—In September 1956, just months after Nikita S. Khrushchev condemned Stalin and his cult of personality in a secret speech to Soviet Communist Party leaders, the Boston Symphony Orchestra became the first U.S. ensemble to give a concert behind the Iron Curtain. It was followed three years later by the New York Philharmonic, led by Leonard Bernstein, and then by a U.S. tour by the Moscow State Symphony. More such tours followed through the up-and-down decades of Cold War rivalry.

While it’s easy to remember Khrushchev for the Cuban missile crisis, the space race and his shoe-banging threat to bury the U.S., there was a slight easing of tensions through much of his eight years in power. The Cold War rivalry still permeated everything, but Moscow organized a huge congress of international youth in 1957, and the next year American pianist Van Cliburn shocked Soviets by winning the international Tchaikovsky piano competition.

Of course, such events were used as evidence of the superiority of the U.S. or the Soviet system. But the point is that cultural exchanges became part of the fabric of the relationship, a means for American and Soviet officials to balance their ideological competition. And in allowing their citizens a positive look at people on the other side of the divide, officials probably gave themselves a bit of wiggle room to manage the conflict.

—Moving ahead to 1971, it’s nearly impossible to overstate the impact of ping-pong diplomacy. No group of Americans had even been allowed to enter China since Mao’s revolution in 1949. The country was still wracked by the Cultural Revolution. Yet, out of the blue, the U.S. team competing at the world tennis table championships in Japan, received an invitation to visit China.

Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was looking for an opening to the United States. President Nixon was looking for a way out of the Vietnam War, and leverage against the Soviet Union. He seized the opportunity. Three months after the ping-pong tour, Henry Kissinger secretly visited China. Nixon himself went the next year. 

In 1973, it was the turn of the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was the start of what is by now a long history of cultural, sports and people-to-people exchanges.

Article continues after advertisement

But things don’t always turn out so well.

In December 1999, it was the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra that headed to Cuba, the first major orchestra to go there since the U.S. economic embargo was imposed in the early 1960s.

But that visit was in far different circumstances. The U.S. and Cuba were in the midst of a major dispute over custody of a 6-year-old boy, Elian Gonzalez, whose mother died at sea while taking him to Florida.  (He has been back in the news recently). While that issue was resolved, plenty of other problems remained. Relations between the U.S. and Cuba have only started improving with the announcement in December that they would resume diplomatic relations.

There’s also North Korea.

In February 2008, the New York Philharmonic made history with a visit to Pyongyang at the invitation of the North Korean government. Similar to the Minnesota Orchestra in Havana, which played the Cuban and then the U.S. national anthems, the New York Phil reached out to its audience by playing a folk song loved by Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel. The North Koreans loved it. The musicians were thrilled, too.

Then, thud. That’s as far as the story goes. The North Koreans have shown themselves to be experts at hinting they want to improve relations, and then manufacturing a crisis to extract concessions.

The country’s new young leader, Kim Jong Un, now seems to have other priorities: executing senior officials in order to try to maintain a grip on power.