Built as a sanctuary for Cuba research in exile, UM institute now has no leader

Andy Gómez
Andy Gómez

Five months ago Andy Gómez, founder and former senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, returned as interim director of the research center. His last day was Friday, with the future of the embattled institute still up in the air and a permanent director yet to be selected.

When the university asked Gómez, who retired from UM in 2012 with a UM President’s Medal, to serve as temporary director while a search went on to replace retiring director Jaime Suchlicki, he said he was “honored” despite a health condition that was aggravated by stress.

But the stress began almost immediately after Gómez came in with a goal of stabilizing the institute, whose mission is teaching, research and outreach to the community. Not only was there static about the nature of Suchlicki’s departure, but then Suchlicki opened a rival research center and took some of the ICCAS staff with him.

Although Suchlicki, a tenured professor who had been at the university for 50 years, agreed to and signed an attractive retirement package, he later said he wasn’t retiring but resigning over differences with UM President Julio Frenk and the university’s plans to close the institute.

The university said that it has no plans to shut the institute and that it will remain open with limited operations while the search for the Emilio Bacardí Moreau Chair — Suchlicki’s former professorship — continues. The search committee, comprised of UM faculty and students, is chaired by Dean Guillermo “Willy” Prado.

“I’m not sure the institute will keep going and they will be able to attract a top-notch scholar given all the problems,” Gómez said.

I’m not sure the institute will keep going and they will be able to attract a top-notch scholar given all the problems.

Andy Gómez, former ICCAS director

UM said the now rudderless institute would remain open and that Casa Bacardí, where the institute is located, “continues to serve as venue for various campus and community meetings and events.”

Over the summer, several Cuban exile groups joined the fray, concerned that the institute might shift its focus from being an academic weapon against the Castro regime. They took the line that Suchlicki had not retired but had been unjustly terminated.

Some exiles began to attack Gómez and asked for his resignation as interim director of the institute.

Without mentioning Gómez directly, the organizations that make up the Cuban Resistance said in a statement that UM “cannot appoint an interim director or any incoming directors who may associate with companies that trade with the Castro regime, since this Center, by definition, cannot be under the influence and interference of Havana’s totalitarian regime.” Gómez had been an on-board lecturer on Cuba during a cruise to the island. It was a one-time gig.

Frenk ended up meeting with 17 representatives of the Cuban exile community in August and assured them that “the university will not establish any institutional agreements with the current Cuban government, including its universities.” But some UM professors travel regularly to the island as part of their research and plan to continue to do so — albeit without any formal agreements with Cuban universities.

“There was very little oversight on the activities of the institute. ICCAS had become isolated from the academic life of the university. Many faculty members and deans had never visited the institute,” said Gómez. He said he worked to reintroduce faculty members and students to the institute while serving as interim director.

Reached Friday, Suchlicki said he was no longer with the university and had no interest in talking about the institute.

Jaime Suchlicki, whose departure from UM’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies caused a flap, is shown during a presentation of the documentary “The Failure of the Bay of Pigs” at Casa Bacardi. Hector Gabino El Nuevo Herald

“I have mixed feelings [about what happened] because Jaime and I worked very hard to found the institute and it’s sad to see it turn into this,” Gómez said Friday.

He said Suchlicki had run the institute well after it was founded in 1999, but that in recent years, it had become highly politicized. Someone at the institute covered up the name on the Olga and Carlos Saladrigas exhibit hall before a community event because Saladrigas was perceived as being too pro-engagement, Gómez said.

One of the academic low points was a staff report saying ICCAS had received information that Gen. Leopoldo Cintra Frías, the head of the Cuban armed forces, had visited Syria in 2015 and that Cuban military operatives were advising President Bashar al-Assad’s soldiers and might be preparing to man Russian-made tanks to aid in fighting U.S.-backed rebel forces.

“It would indicate that General Raúl Castro is more interested in supporting his allies, Russia and Syria, than in continuing to normalize relations with the U.S.,” the ICCAS report said. But Cintra Frías had not traveled to Syria. U.S. intelligence sources, the White House and Cuban officials emphatically said the report wasn’t true.

UM said that it was committed to “hiring an accomplished scholar in Cuban and Cuban-American studies” to replace Suchlicki, who had not taught a class in more than a decade.

Gómez said he recommended having a rotating professorship for the Emilio Bacardí Moreau Chair.

The university said that “Cuban studies remains a signature disciplinary focus of the university” and that it looks to the next Emilio Bacardí Moreau Chair “to guide the future of Cuban studies at UM.”

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres

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