First Sports Envoys to Cuba Take People-to-People Diplomacy to New Heights

Shaquille O’Neal, standing at seven feet and one inch tall, is a 15-time National Basketball Association (NBA) all-star and Olympic champion. Kaleb Canales made history as the youngest active NBA head coach with the Portland Trailblazers and is now making an impact as the Assistant Coach of the Dallas Mavericks.

Together O’Neal and Canales became the first official U.S. Department of State Basketball Sports Envoys to Cuba in June 2016, taking U.S. diplomacy to new heights by forging positive ties with the people of Cuba through the unifying power of sports.  

In this new role, O'Neal and Canales visited Havana last month to engage in a series of community outreach activities, including three youth basketball clinics. Boys and girls of all ages came to the clinics. They came from Afro-Cuban and other communities around Havana, reflecting the diverse talent of Cuba. Through these activities the athletes hoped to impart valuable lessons of inclusion, leadership, and teamwork to the youth. In the spirit of the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent, O’Neal and Canales also visited a municipal museum to celebrate the country’s Afro-Cuban roots. This engagement demonstrated their respect for cultural connections and diasporic ties. 

The ESPN media team covering the program used a 360-degree camera to produce a video documentary on the impact of this U.S.-Cuba exchange, which reached audiences across the hemisphere.

As the world watches the 2016 Olympic Games come to a close in Brazil, it is worth highlighting the role sports can play in fostering people-to-people connections. Sports diplomacy helps us discover common ground, promote social inclusion, and bridge differences. 

It is also worth acknowledging the ability of sports diplomacy to provide a foundation for constructive dialogue in other policy areas. The O'Neal and Canales visit to Havana occurred just one year after the United States re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba and embassies were re-opened in both nations. Their visit symbolized the United States people extending a hand of friendship to the Cuban people and contributed to our progress in normalizing relations with Cuba.

The Department of State Sports Envoy Program works with U.S. leagues and federations to identify current and former athletes and coaches in a range of sports to take part in short-term overseas programs supported by U.S. Embassies in of support regional foreign policy objectives. These programs tap into the universal passion of sports as a way to bring the global community together. We look forward to maintaining the momentum of the Sports Envoy exchange program later this year with American Ballet Theater Principal Dancer Misty Copeland, and other cultural exchanges with Cuba.

About the Author: Blakeney Vasquez is a Foreign Affairs Officer and Cultural Coordinator in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs' Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

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Don S.
Arizona, USA
December 19, 2016
Hello, I write a syndicated online boxing column and I would like to travel to Cuba and talk to amatejur boxers and managers about the success of boxing in Cuba. I want to know the process and I hope the red tape isn't too cumbersome. I look forward to your response and the best time for me to travel is in March or April. Thank you, Don Smith Arizona Boxing News & Notes
Shaquille O'Neal helps a young boy reach a basketball hoop during a basketball clinic in Havana, Cuba. [AP Photo]
U.S. Sports Envoy Shaquille O'Neal plays basketball during a clinic for youth during a visit to Havana, Cuba. [U.S. Embassy Cuba Photo]
NBA Hall of famer, and U.S. Sports Envoy, Shaquille O'Neal shows a young girl how to shoot a basketball hoop during a basketball clinic in Havana, Cuba. [© Michael Paul Franklin]
Surrounded by children in Havana, Cuba, U.S. Sports Envoy and NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal smiles and laughs with a participant during a basketball clinic. [U.S. Embassy Cuba photo]
Posted by Blakeney Vasquez
August 19, 2016


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