U.S.-Cuba: Time to End the Visa Charade

By Eric Hershberg

Slide1Bad habits die hard, especially when they involve Cuba and American bureaucrats eager to appease the right wing.  For more than 50 years, Washington has been at loggerheads with a revolutionary regime eager to reciprocate incessant aggression and stick its finger in the eye of the Colossus to the North.  Although nothing as absurd as a confrontation at the brink of nuclear war has occurred since 1962, during the ensuing decades both governments have repeatedly provoked one another to exacerbate a conflict that even in 2013 bizarrely perpetuates the Cold War.  To this day, the U.S. proclaims “regime change” as its bottom line condition for normalizing relations with a sovereign country for which such imperial proclamations are justly anathema.  Havana, in turn, is not beyond demonizing American citizens – people who have no connections to the U.S. government or its misguided regime-change programs – who seek to engage their Cuban counterparts.  Last month I spent two hours in the Havana airport answering hostile questions from government goons for whom my assurances that my visit was academic in nature were mysteriously insufficient to get me smoothly admitted through immigration.  An American University colleague reports that she suffered similar harassment at the Havana airport in March.

One manifestation of the anachronistic dispute between the two governments is the infantile tit for tat that both parties play with permitting travel across the Florida Straits even for purposes both claim to support. The dynamic is pernicious, and reflects a combination of ideological extremism and petty bureaucratic behavior on both sides.  Organizers of scholarly meetings in Cuba are increasingly being told that the participation of one person or another would not be acceptable to unspecified authorities in Havana, and the result has been that they have been “disinvited” from workshops in which their participation would have been appropriate.  More troubling, from my perspective as an American citizen, is that since the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies was established three years ago, on three separate occasions the State Department delayed the visas of Cuban academics who I had invited to the University and refused to say why.  Last week, when the Latin American Studies Association convened its annual meeting in Washington, assembling 5,000 scholars from around the world, Cuban researchers who have long traveled to and from the U.S. were denied visas, again for no stated reason. They included three individuals with whom the Center has time-tested, ongoing working relationships:  Rafael Hernández, who edits one of Cuba’s principal journal of society and culture and has taught as a Visiting Professor at Harvard and Columbia; Milagros Martínez, who directs international academic affairs at the University of Havana; and Juan Luís Martín, arguably Cuba’s most innovative sociologist.

That the Cuban government interferes with academic life should be no surprise.  That the practice continues on the U.S. side is another matter.  One would think that Washington would by now have gotten beyond this shameful charade, five years into an administration that knows better.  Somewhere in the system and its mysterious processes –the opacity contradicts our democratic principles – bureaucrats are denying visas arbitrarily and with no accountability.  What threat do these academics, whose work has at times catalyzed important debates in Havana, conceivably pose to the United States?  What is the U.S. national interest in slamming the door on people eager to hear what we have to say in our universities and academic conferences?  The State Department’s visa denials undermine the professional activities of American citizens and contradict the Administration’s own policy of “people-to-people” relations.  It may be too much to expect President Obama to risk incurring the wrath of a shrinking minority in the Cuban-American community and in the Congress to put forth a rational Cuba policy.  But one would have thought that Secretary of State Kerry has the wherewithal and influence required to put an end to the use of visa requests as a means of restaging scenes from a cold war era that ought to have been left behind twenty years ago. The State Department’s actions over the past month evidence its disregard for academic freedom and the hollowness of its assurances to the scholarly community that it does not intend to interfere with our work.  I say: Enough is enough.


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