The U.S. government’s denial of visas to several Cubans invited to an upcoming academic congress has uncorked a string of protests — against Washington, the pro-Castro U.S. academics who allegedly control the conference’s Cuba agenda and the Havana spies who allegedly attend.
Some academics who study Cuba issues have long complained about the island government’s influence on the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), which bills itself as the world’s largest association for the study of the region.
But they usually kept their complaints private because Cuba has repeatedly denied access to the island and research materials to any academics who dared criticize the communist government too harshly. Until now.
“The LASA Cuba section has been taken over by supporters of the revolution and it has been thoroughly politicized,” said Ted Henken, a professor of Latin American Studies at Baruch College in New York.
“Those of us who have been in LASA also know that within the Cuban ‘delegation’ there are always as many ‘policemen’ as in Coppelia on a Saturday night,” Cuban sociologist Haroldo Dilla wrote in an online column. He referred to Havana’s famous Coppelia ice cream parlor.
Asked about the criticism, LASA President Evelyne Huber said the Cuba section “is open to all LASA members, and LASA itself is open to all scholars and other professionals interested in Latin America. Nobody is excluded from membership based on their political opinions.”
“I do not know what qualifies a scholar as a ‘supporter of the Cuban government’ ... and whether the elected leaders of the section would fall into that category. Most scholars who deal with Cuba that I know are acutely aware of both the strengths and weaknesses, or achievements and shortcomings of the Cuban government,” added Huber, head of the political science department at the University of North Carolina.
Cuba section co-chairman Sheryl Lutjens, director of the Women’s Studies Program at California State University San Marcos, did not reply to requests for comments. Her co-chairman is Jorge Mario Sanchez, a professor at the University of Havana.
All country sections are co-headed by members from the U.S. and the foreign country. LASA, with 7,000 members from around the world, is based at the University of Pittsburgh.
Henken and Dilla’s comments were triggered by reports that the U.S. State Department had denied visas to several Cubans invited to attend LASA’s annual congress May 29-June 1 in Washington, D.C.
Three of them were identified as Elaine Díaz Rodríguez, a journalist and University of Havana professor, and young bloggers Isbel Díaz Torres and Dimitri Prieto Samsónov. Elaine Díaz’s visa was later approved. The U.S. visas could have been denied for a broad range of issues, from concerns that the academics would defect and stay in the United States to any criminal records.
The trio should be allowed to participate in the LASA conference because they “are known for their critical positions in the face of specific aspects of the Cuban reality,” Dilla wrote in an April 15 column published on the website CubaEncuentro.
Henken, a LASA member who also heads the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE), argued that the visa denials are “a lost opportunity for the U.S. to hear critical and authentic voices from inside Cuba.”