Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*
HAVANA TIMES — The annual conferences of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) are major academic events. Over hectic days of sessions after sessions, hundreds of intellectuals from the hemisphere have the opportunity to discuss topics relevant to the situation in Latin America.
They meet, exchange ideas and initiate friendships that can bear fruit in working arrangements that help to build bridges between the two Americas.
For all of this, LASA is extremely important and should continue its functioning as a pluralistic setting of social thought.
It’s also significant for Cuban academics, many of whom have gone to these gatherings – and it’s constructive that they continue to do so. It’s only that for LASA, Cuba isn’t merely a country that sends academics to its meetings; it’s also a sort of political test case.
In the same way that the US government has placed restrictions on such exchanges with Cuba, the leaders of LASA — regularly coming from liberal political circles — strive to ensure Cuba’s participation, even at the cost of these conferences not being held on American soil, as it was forced to do during George W. Bush’s term in office.
Although there’s funding assistance for all participants, Cubans enjoy special support from different agencies, a privilege that the rest of Latin Americans have no access to. This explains the over-representation of islanders at these conclaves.
At this last congress, for example, there were about 60 Cubans, but only one Dominican, and that was me – though I’m Cuban-Dominican.
As the Cuban government knows this, it exploits this as a kind of penitent veil that has been thrown over the liberals so as to turn LASA into a battle field of political confrontation, arrogating the right to choose who will (or, better said, who will not) make statements, engage in propaganda or threaten to boycott the gathering if their demands aren’t met.
For this, training sessions are organized in Cuba for the participants who are selected (or who are not objected to), including the officials charged with control and who agree on what actions are to be taken when any special political sensitivity is perceived.
While LASA is only an academic point of reference for other governments in the region, for the Cubans it is an object of political attention. This is why people from all other countries attend as individuals, while the Cubans are an official delegation with a head and everything.
Everyone has become accustomed to this: Cubans having to work in such as cumbersome manner at this academic event and Cubanologists being exposed to the attacks of the ideological condottieri.
This all occurs while the majority of those present have their interests in other places and view Cuba for what is really is (an island in the Caribbean, with a fragile economy, an 80-year-old president and great music).
At this current conference, however, there have been two new intimately connected developments.
One was the addition of Mariela Castro to the Cuban delegation. It’s common for the Cuban government to insert senior figures of the system into its delegations. Ricardo Alarcon, for example, has earned several trips through this approach. Now there’s Mariela Castro, who played a particularly prominent roll at the event though she was only part of a session that few attended, almost all of them Cubans.
But outside of the event, in various activities coordinated by the Cuban government and related groups, she in fact moved with the clumsiness of an elephant.
In one place she publicly declared her political sympathies for Obama, which must have certainly sounded like celestial music to the Republicans camp. It was as if she had been instructed to assist the Romney campaign.
On another occasion she sullenly refused to talk to the press, and on another became emotionally upset when someone mentioned Yoani Sanchez.
But really, I repeat, her attendance was of little relevance, almost invisible. The importance of her visit for LASA was — more than the visit itself — what was derived from it: the refusal of visas for 11 Cuban scholars.
Eleven Cuban academics were denied visas to attend the LASA conference. Whatever the political differences they might hold, no one can doubt that they are academics.
Indeed, some of them are considered top-ranking in their fields, ones like Oscar Zanetti, arguably the best exponent of contemporary historiography on the island.
Therefore, the only explanation for this is that the Obama administration made the mistake of balancing the granting of one visa to an enlightened official against the refusal of visas for close to a dozen scholars.
The reaction by LASA was swift. Likewise, the diligent Cuba section did not delay in drafting and publishing a protest seeking signatures against the decision by the US government, citing the need to respect academic freedom and the viability of exchanges of the same nature.
Frankly, I think that American academics have the right and the duty to demand greater respect by their government for academic exchanges and theoretical debates. In doing so they would be defending the civil and political liberties of their country.
It only seems to me that LASA, as an organization, should take a more active stance in defending the rights of Cuban intellectuals to participate, especially when it involves the defense of the quality of the gathering for the equitable and pluralistic debate that it seeks and that to a great degree has managed to forge.
In the recent history of LASA, there have been a string of arbitrary actions taken by the government in Havana to block the participation of its citizens.
This can be seen in the cases of Espinosa Chepe, Yoani Sanchez and others. While it’s true that LASA policy should be careful when it comes to interfering in decisions by a government, a public suggestion would be desirable simply so that Latin American academia would have the opportunity to know what Chepe thinks about the Raulist “updating” or what Yoani’s opinion is concerning social networks.
The situation of my fellow islanders is even more delicate. I think it’s ethical and political nonsense that the Cuban members of LASA were invited to — and finally did — sign a letter to the US government asking for justice for the 11 (referring to the number of visas denied).
For the US government, this negative action is hardly a drop in the ocean compared to all of the violations committed by the Cuban government in this field, which is in fact also the government of the dissidents too. Therefore the acts by the Cuban government are not being committed against foreigners but against its own citizens, such as Espinosa Chepe and Yoani Sanchez.
I must confess that the Cuba section of LASA, with its nearly three hundred members, is working in this direction as a sounding board of the ideological department of the Cuban Communist Party and has been accumulating a fairly dishonorable record.
For example, about two years ago the Cuba section of LASA circulated a document calling for the US government to let its citizens travel to Cuba, but in no place did it invite the Cuban government to reconsider its archaic and repressive immigration laws.
It was a staggering case of moral paralysis if we look at the underlying differences between the two cases in the interests of the American side.
In that same year, the head of the section, a Cuban-American, attended the “Nacion con la emigracion” (Nation with Emigrants) conference on behalf of LASA, thus legitimizing a discriminatory and exclusionary act in the name of “flexible dialogue,” “critical support,” “orderly transition” and many other ideological trifles that justify these unilateral actions that are highly profitable for the Cuban government without inducing any change.
Now the Cuban section of LASA is returning to its old indiscretions. It is doing so by forcing Cuban academics to sign an outrageous resolution, incapacitated as they are, while not asking for something similar from their own government. Nor can they even refuse to sign, if they want to keep their jobs and the professional opportunities offered LASA.
Although I’m a member of LASA, I walked out on the Cuba session several years ago in protest of the pro-government ravings by the leadership back then. I was also fed up with the performances allowed from some of the Cuban academics who indulged in these circles.
I wasn’t at the meeting in San Francisco, but some of those people present told me that after adopting a resolution calling for the release of the Cuban Five heroes/spies, they went on to discuss the case of the eleven academics.
Very few people objected in any way to the sad initiative, and as Carlos Lage said about the poor children, none of them were Cuban.
I spoke with a perceptive American professor, Ted Henken, who spoke gently and tactfully about the partiality of LASA with respect to these matters, but he only managed to earn aggressive retorts from some of the Cuban hardliners.
One of them, Miguel Barnet, simply remarked that no one can stand up for the right of Yoani Sanchez to travel to LASA conferences because mercenaries, he said, aren’t entitled to attend LASA meetings.
This means that Barnet assumes himself to have the right to decide who goes to LASA and, by the way, to determine who is or isn’t a mercenary.
Concerning this last issue, it should be recognized that he has a remarkable expertise derived from his many professional experiences, but he doesn’t have the authority to classify third parties.
I think LASA should begin to assess its relationship with Cuba. This isn’t about creating a rupture or jumping on the bandwagon of blockades and embargoes. But LASA must remember that Cuba is not its government, but its society.
And Cuba is not only the island, but a transnational totality that includes its emigrants. LASA, let’s not forget, has proclaimed its mission as being to foster intellectual discussion and “encourage civic engagement through network building and public.” This isn’t just a part of the complex Cuban reality. This cannot be done, nor is it ethically sustainable, by underpinning the mechanisms of exclusion imposed by the Cuban government.
I don’t think that the old condescending approaches are helping LASA, society or the Cuban academic community. It’s like the story of the road paved with good intentions – it looks nice but leads directly to hell.
(*) A Havana Times translation of the original published by Cubaencuentro.com.