Emily Mendrala is Executive Director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas. She was most recently a Director in the Legislative Affairs Directorate at the National Security Council where she advised the National Security Advisor on legislative matters pertaining to Latin America, Europe, Asia, Russia, nuclear nonproliferation, and multilateral affairs. Prior to joining President Obama’s NSC, Emily worked at the Department of State as a Special Advisor to the Coordinator for Cuban Affairs on bilateral and congressional matters and, before that, as an advisor on Central America regional affairs. Before joining the Department, Emily was a Professional Staff Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and advised Chairman Kerry on Latin America, global women’s issues, foreign assistance, and trafficking in persons. She also previously served as the director of the educational wing of a nonprofit organization in Alexandria, Virginia working with a Salvadoran immigrant population. Emily is from Raleigh, North Carolina. She has an M.A. in International Economics with a concentration in Latin American Studies from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a B.A. in Mathematics from the University of Virginia. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.
María José Espinosa Carrillo is Director of Programs and Operations of the Center for Democracy in the Americas. María José joined in March 2016, and provides strategic and operational leadership to support the growth of CDA’s advocacy initiatives, Cuba Travel Program and research efforts. Prior to joining CDA, María José worked at DMC of Miami where she organized exchange programs and missions for individuals or groups interested in better understanding economic development opportunities in Cuba. Earlier in her career, she was an International Affairs Analyst at the Centre for the Study of Asia and Oceania and was a member of a research team that published reports on Cuba’s economic, political and social affairs regarding Asia and Oceania. She began her career as a Professor in the School of Economics at the University of Havana and taught undergraduate courses in Cuban Economic Thought, Global Economic Thought and Political Economy. She holds a MSc. in Economics from the University of Havana, a MSc. in Tourism and Environmental Economics from the Universitat de les Illes Balears, and a BSc. in Economics from the University of Havana. María José is the recipient of multiple academic awards, including a scholarship from the government of Spain’s Agency for International Development Cooperation for her graduate work at the Universitat de les Illes Balears.
Sarah Coker is CDA’s 2019 Stephen M. Rivers Memorial Fellow. She graduated with a BA in Spanish from Skidmore College, and previously interned at CDA and at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) with their communications and Cuba programs. She recently co-authored a paper on non-traditional channels for mobilization as related to Cuba’s draft constitution with CDA’s previous fellow Luis Carlos Battista. Her interest in Cuba began with a travel seminar to the island in 2015, and was furthered through a second trip in 2017 and a semester abroad in Havana in 2018.
Founding Executive Director
Sarah Stephens is the founder and former Executive Director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA). She is also the founder and Director of the Cuba Platform. At CDA, for ten years, she designed and led programs to educate and change hearts and minds about U.S. relations with Cuba. She has engaged hundreds of policymakers, business leaders, women philanthropists, artists, and cultural icons in supporting an end to the embargo. Ms. Stephens has led more than 70 official fact-finding trips, trade and cultural missions, and people-to-people delegations to Cuba over the past 17 years, including those of The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities; Governors Andrew Cuomo (NY) and Terry McAuliffe (VA); seven U.S. corporations from the Fortune 100 List, and dozens of Members of the U.S. House and Senate from both parties.
At CDA, Ms. Stephens created the weekly Cuba Central News Brief and supervised the publication of a series of reports on 21st Century Cuba, including “Cuba’s New Resolve: Economic Reform and its Implications for United States Policy” and “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and Women’s Role in Building Cuba’s Future,” funded by the Ford Foundation and featured in The New York Times. Ms. Stephens has testified before Congress on U.S.- Cuba relations and the coup in Honduras, and continues to provide commentary and expertise to the media and in other public forums. Her current research and writing is focused on the intersection of neuroscience and empathetic societies.
Advisors and Consultants
Annita Seckinger is a soils and water scientist who works as a trips consultant to CDA. She is also the founder and president of the Watts Branch Watershed Alliance, an organization dedicated to the preservation and restoration of the Watts Branch Watershed in Montgomery Country, Maryland. Annita serves as president of Creation Care International, a non-profit dedicated to the restoration and preservation of Soils. In collaboration with Ray Weil PhD, Annita is currently working on a projects related to soil, health, restoration and reforestation in an indigenous community in northern Mexico.
Additionally, Annita has worked with children – both domestically and abroad – on issues pertaining to health and nutrition. For more than ten years, she has worked to bring healthy, locally sourced food back to Maryland’s elementary, middle and high schools while stressing the importance of environmental education for young people of all age groups. Annita holds degrees from the University of Maryland and the Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden.
David E. Dreyer is a senior principal at TSD, Inc. His work has taken him across the U.S. and abroad on assignments that included working at the Sydney and Athens Summer Olympic Games, conducting communications audits for public and private sector organizations, advising the Ecumenical Patriarch of Eastern Orthodoxy, and providing strategic counsel to CDA’s public education campaign to change U.S. policy toward Cuba and the region.
In addition, David served previously as Deputy White House Communications Director for President Bill Clinton and as Senior Advisor to U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin. For fourteen years, David was a trusted advisor to Democratic Members of the U.S. Congress.
Linda Garrett is senior policy analyst on El Salvador. Ms. Garrett is a writer, journalist, community organizer and human rights investigator. Her extensive experience with El Salvador started in 1981 when she co-founded two projects in Los Angeles to assist Central American refugees; twenty-eight years later, El Rescate and the Clínica Msr. Romero continue to provide social, legal and health care services in the Pico-Union District of Los Angeles. After serving El Rescate as director and fundraiser, she moved to El Salvador and documented human rights, social, political and military developments from 1985-1995.
Following the 1992 Peace Agreement, Ms. Garrett collaborated on El Rescate’s Index to Accountability Project; she was also a consultant to the United Nations-sponsored Truth and Ad-Hoc Commissions, and an investigator for the 1994 United Nations Commission to investigate illegal armed groups. During this time, she compiled two books on human rights which were published anonymously, and she was also a contributor to the Salvadoran magazine Tendencias.
After 1995, Ms. Garrett worked as a journalist in Vietnam, directed a community organizing project with undocumented immigrants in the state of Georgia, and participated in a reconciliation project in the Balkans. She returned to El Salvador as an election observer in 2009.
Dr. Dan Hellinger is a CDA contributor and the author of our update on Venezuela, Caracas Connect. Dr. Hellinger is a professor of political science at Webster University and has been following Venezuelan events closely since his first visit there in 1978. He has published several books and a wide range of articles on the country, and has served a president of the Venezuelan Studies Section of the Latin American Studies Association.
Collin Laverty is a Cuba consultant at the Center for Democracy in the Americas. He speaks Portuguese and Spanish and has lived, studied and conducted research throughout Latin America. Collin graduated with honors from the College of Charleston, where he majored in Political Science. He coordinated CDA’s Cuba program from 2008-2010, helping to organize and accompanying fact-finding and research delegations of policymakers, academics and experts to Latin America. He has performed extensive research on developments in the region over the years, contributing to CDA publications and offering opinion pieces in the Havana Times, Huffington Post, Progreso Weekly and Venezuela Analysis.
After leaving CDA, Collin studied at the University of California, San Diego. In May 2012, he completed a Master’s degree at the Institute for International Relations and Pacific Studies, where he was a FLAS fellow and managing director of the International Policy Solutions Journal. After graduating, Collin founded Cuba Educational Travel, through which he now organizes and leads people-to-people delegations to Cuba.