Here we go again.
A distinct Miami stew of issues of academic freedom and heated exile politics is brewing at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.
The trigger this time around: change, the age of engagement and the passing of a generation in Havana and Miami.
Add to the mix the academic turbulence of UM’s transition to a new leadership under physician and scholar President Julio Frenk, whose grandparents fled from Germany to Mexico in the 1930s and who is fresh to Miami’s unique perspective on Cuban issues. He became UM’s sixth president in 2015 after holding top positions in Harvard’s prestigious health and government schools.
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And so, when the university announced the retirement of Jaime Suchlicki — the only director ICCAS has had since its founding in 1999 and an unabashed hardliner and critic of engagement with Cuba — Suchlicki cried foul.
He told the media he was being forced out by the president, and that Frenk intends to close ICCAS, merge Cuban Studies into the Latin American curriculum and establish exchanges with Cuban universities. Suchlicki also said he’s taking the center and its staff with him to the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora, a newly opened taxpayer-funded institution struggling to survive without a proper endowment.
For people who don’t live in Coral Gables and regularly attend ICCAS programs at Casa Bacardí, or who don’t have ties to the university and Cuban-American issues, the loss of ICCAS might not mean much. But it has been a central part — and, perhaps, the most well-regarded — hub of quality conservative scholarship on Cuba and a treasure trove of history and cultural inheritance.
“It’s not that a center like this has power, but it does have a certain influence,” Andy S. Gómez, one of the institute’s founders, told me.
Gómez, a sought-after Cuba expert because of his fact-based approach to issues, has come out of retirement to lead ICCAS until a new director is found. He intends to keep the center’s mission and support the opposition in Cuba, but will modernize, fundraise and energize the center by bringing in more young people interested in Cuban affairs.
“If the president intended to close it, I would not have taken on this role,” said Gómez, who added that his only difference of opinion with Suchlicki is travel. Gómez has been to Cuba four times and sees it as a vital part of scholarship to be on the ground. But he’s pro-embargo and feels strongly that lifting it should be conditioned to human-rights improvements.
Yet the wrath that hardliners have unleashed on Gómez, UM, and supporters of engagement with Cuba has been quite ugly and reminiscent of times when Cuban Miami was criticized around the nation for lacking respect for academic and artistic freedoms. El Nuevo Herald columnist Andrés Reynaldo charged that what’s going on at ICCAS is part of a conspiracy to “de-Cubanize” Miami (as if that were possible) and “neutralize the exile” community to keep it from exercising its economic, cultural and political power to topple the Cuban dictatorship.
Can there be a more opportune gift to the Cuban regime than an exile community at war with itself? As for academic virtue, there’s little credibility when you politicize your agenda. ICCAS can stand improvement and update.
The Cuban exile community is not a monolith of thought and purpose, as much as a sector of Cuban Miami and the ruling class in Cuba would like it to be so. Both extremes are mirror images of each other, but the majority makes up the heftier middle and comes in all sorts of political hues.
Just like the Cuban dictatorship purports to speak for the Cuban people, the hardliners in Miami don’t speak for all Cuban Americans.
All of the scholarship in the world and isolation from the U.S. has not produced regime change in Cuba for almost six decades. Despite President Donald Trump’s tough talk in Little Havana and the Cuban government’s heightened rhetoric in return, the present points to engagement.
The future — who knows? But Gómez offers the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that ICCAS could use more of.
The problems in Cuba pre-date 1959, he said, and hark back to caudillismo, the Latin American system of social and political domination by a strongman.
“The best model for a future Cuba is not in China or Vietnam, but in Hialeah, where a strongman oversees an advanced program of social services that supports the population until civil society flourishes.”
A place, he adds, that’s home to Cubans from all epochs and points of view.