Foundation of Friendship

Karla Portocarrero '03


  When Duke student Courtney Spence started Students of the World, the organization under whose auspices Lucas Schaefer traveled to Cuba, Fundación Amistad was behind her. When Duke professor Orin Starn took students to Cuba for a six-week Duke-in-Cuba program last May, just as the Elián Gonzalez saga was coming to a close, Fundación Amistad was behind him. And when former Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences dean Norm Christensen joined a delegation of environmental educators in Cuba, Fundación Amistad was behind him, too.

It isn’t surprising to find these and many other connections between Fundación Amistad and the university. The Fundación’s founder is Maria de Lourdes “Luly” Duke, a native of Cuba, who, with her husband, former university trustee and Duke family member Anthony Duke Hon. ’99, has long been involved in nonprofit and charitable work. According to its mission statement, the Fundación, founded in 1997, was established “to foster mutual understanding between the peoples of the United States and Cuba. To achieve its mission, Fundación Amistad sponsors educational, cultural, and humanitarian exchanges and projects that deepen the appreciation of each other’s heritage and society.”

“When I first went back to Cuba in 1995, after thirty-five years of absence, I really felt that there was a total need to understand the country—and the people of the country—by every American, including Cuban-Americans,” Luly Duke says. “So I set forth to try to do what I could. And from being together with Tony doing work for inner-city youth in New York’s Harlem and East Harlem, I felt that I had a solid background that I could bring to Cuba and help with young people and their needs.”

The Fundación Amistad works in several areas:

• academic, including Casa de las Americas, which has been tied to Duke’s study-abroad program since 1998, and various scholars’ exchanges;
• arts and culture, including joint American-Cuban theater workshops and exchanges for the Seventh Havana Art Biennial and for the preservation of architecture and cultural heritage; 
• health and medicine, including an American Academy of Pediatricians Cuban Initiative and the development of funding for UNICEF’s Clínica del Adolescente; 
• and Voices of Change, a year-old project meant to build grass-roots support for moderate Cuban-American positions.

These moderate positions, Duke says, are more widespread throughout the Cuban-American communities than popular stereotypes or a vocal right-wing Cuban-American contingent might admit. “You encounter people that are very much ‘against’; ‘Voices of Change: Looking Towards the Future’ offers a forum for moderate Cuban-Americans who feel that their views are not being heard, so we can get beyond the conservative Cuban-Americans to the policy-making level. There is another voice, and that’s us. We need to move forward. There’s a very emotional level to this issue, and I think people have to arrive at the point where they have to let go and move on. Unfortunately, too many people have not been able to do that.”

Duke says that “letting go” and “moving on” means showing support for the human needs of Cubans—support that can be difficult to generate when the public at large doesn’t see the entire scope of the Cuba issue. The Fundación hopes to change that, through education, exchange, and outreach. “You don’t see the whole picture, you don’t hear the whole picture, you don’t feel the whole picture unless you go there and visit,” she says. “The reality of the Cuban people is very far removed, and their needs are very far removed. I don’t think the embargo has helped very much in that regard.”

“We continue to do workshops and seminars down in Cuba, to really share,” she adds. The Students of the World trip, Norm Christensen’s environmental-education delegation, or a librarians’ exchange such as one Perkins Library’s Hortensia Calvo participated in, can make a difference, allowing people to see past the veil of the embargo. Fundación Amistad was one of the first organizations to receive a U.S. Treasury license allowing them to sponsor such exchanges for “educational programs,” and Duke says there have been no difficulties from either the U.S. or the Cuban government.

New ties are being forged in Durham, where former Tulane professor Nicholas Robins, executive director of Fundación Amistad, will be settling into an office at the John Hope Franklin Center. “We’ve had this connection with Duke forever and a day,” Duke says. “Now we’re going to be able to promote more academic and scientific exchanges.”

Connections have been made with the Latin American Studies program, with which Duke says the Fundación hopes to sponsor conferences and cultural events. The Franklin Center will host a travel conference next year to examine the history and legal context of restrictions on travel to Cuba and prospects for change.

Finally, she says, the Cuban Studies Consortium is being launched at Duke, putting the university in a position to work with Fundación Amistad to foster Cuban studies. “Hopefully, we’ll get different sponsors, and different universities that want to participate, giving professors different places to go.” She envisions a widespread network of schools that would allow Cuban scholars to make the most of what academia in the United States can give.

Despite concerns from some about reprisals from the conservative Cuban-American community, Duke says support for Fundación Amistad and its mission of education and healing has continued to grow. “It’s bringing better understanding between the people, it’s getting trust on both sides, and instilling confidence that we are real people,” she says, “and they are really willing to support these programs.”

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