When the White House announced plans to ease restrictions and allow Cuban-Americans to visit and send money to relatives in Cuba, a UVA alumnus was at the center of the historic moment. Dan Restrepo (Col ’93), President Barack Obama’s senior adviser on Latin America and senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council, delivered the message during an April 13 press briefing.
The announcement came with an unexpected twist: Restrepo made it in Spanish. It’s believed to be the first time a language other than English has been used to address the media during a White House press briefing.
“This is a step to extend a hand to the Cuban people in support of their desire to determine their own future,” Restrepo said after making the announcement. “It’s very important to help open up space so the Cuban people can work on the kind of grassroots democracy that is necessary to move Cuba to a better future.”
After some media members in attendance wondered why such a significant announcement was not made by the president himself, press secretary Robert Gibbs explained why Restrepo delivered it in Spanish. “We’re doing this so that Cuban-Americans can hear loud and clear the steps that the president is taking,” said Gibbs. “That image that is being beamed in there [to Cuba] is in a language that they can all understand and take heart in.”
The strategy appeared effective. Restrepo’s comments were aired throughout Latin America, including major news outlets like CNN en Español and Univision.
According to UVA politics professor Larry Sabato, it was also a savvy political move. “One of the greatest battles in today’s politics is over Hispanics, the fastest growing minority group in America,” says Sabato. “In 2008, the Democrats reversed recent Republican gains, and President Obama carried Hispanics by more than two-to-one. Obama wants to maintain that edge, and Hispanic appointees like Dan Restrepo and [U.S. Supreme Court justice] Sonia Sotomayor—as well as the first Spanish-speaking press briefing—promote that goal.”
Restrepo, a first-generation American whose parents are Colombian and Spanish, majored in foreign affairs and history at the University, lived on the Lawn and was the editor in chief of the Cavalier Daily. He came to his current position from the Center for American Progress, where he was the director of The Americas Project—a role that allowed Restrepo to explore and research the United States’ relationship with the Americas and make policy recommendations.
“[Restrepo] is fun, he’s funny and has a sharp wit and sense of humor. He challenges all of us to think about this world in different ways,” Winnie Stachelberg, a senior vice president with the Center for American Progress, told the Washington Post.