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.”
But while academic freedom and exchanges are always desirable, both men argued, U.S.-Cuba academic relations are marred by a lack of reciprocity — and worse.
Henken noted that Omar Everleny Perez, a young economist in Cuba who has criticized some of the Raúl Castro government’s economic reforms and was scheduled to sit on a LASA panel, will not be allowed to travel to Washington by his own university.
And while Baruch College sent nine students to Cuba in January, Havana never answered Henken’s request to accompany them, he said. Henken visited Cuba several times for his research until 2011, when he interviewed several bloggers, including some critical of the government. As he left the country, he wrote, State Security officials told him, “This will be your last time.”
Dilla, who now teaches in the Dominican Republic, said that Cuba also does not allow some exile academics like himself to return to the island to attend conferences, to publish their work in the island’s periodicals or to teach in its universities.
One LASA member who presented a paper at an ASCE conference in Miami last year admitted she toned her criticisms of Havana in the printed version of the paper, compared with her verbal remarks, out of fear that Cuban officials would read her paper and block her annual research trips to Cuba.
“LASA’s Cuba section basically has been taken over by the Cubans, the government … and we keep quiet so we can get or continue to have access to Cuba,” said the researcher, who asked for anonymity for the same reasons.
While the U.S. visa-granting process for academics “has its problems of politicization, bureaucracy and arbitrarity,” Henken said, the Cuban government’s “systematic mockery of academic freedom and freedom of movement is much more condemnable.”
There’s been no indication of the size of the Cuban delegation to the LASA congress next month in Washington. But in 2003 the Bush administration denied visas to the entire Cuban mission — reportedly 75 people.
Dilla, who attended two LASA conferences before he left Cuba in 2000, wrote that the association should push the State Department to issue visas to Cuban academics who apply but added that he wanted “to point out a couple of details.”
While highly respected Cuban academics attend the LASA conferences, he said, the island’s delegations always include intelligence officials and collaborators.
“Some are on the payroll of Línea and A,” he added, referring to the Havana street address of the Interior Ministry’s Intelligence Directorate. “Others are guardians of the ideological agencies, some active and some retired … but all of them, and above all, [are] people who carry out duties that have little to do with the free academic debate.”
Former Cuban intelligence official Orlando Brito Pestana, who defected in 2002 and now lives in South Florida, has said that he attended a LASA conference in Canada around 1991 with accreditation from the Cuba Foreign Ministry. His job, he said, was to spot pro-Castro academics attending the conference and monitor Cuban academics who might have been planning to defect.
“They can be spotted at each congress, sucking up the LASA budget, coercing the true academics and turning the Cuba Task Force into a tangled and opaque extension of the Ideological Department of the Communist Party of Cuba,” Dilla said.
Cubans going to the LASA conferences are also subjected, before they travel, to nearly two weeks of briefings by the Ideological Department on issues such as the economy and human rights, Dilla added.