Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*
HAVANA TIMES — Every time the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) holds one of its congresses, we see at least one conflict involving Cubans and travel visas.
This year, on the eve of the 31st Congress, to be held in Washington, the U.S. State Department has denied three young Cuban intellectuals – Isbel Díaz, Dimitri Prieto and Elaine Díaz – the needed travel visas. I am told that the decision regarding Elaine has been reconsidered, though, at the time I had completed this post, I had not yet confirmed this rumor.
I believe a gathering of this nature would be enriched by the participation of these three people, which would also signal the rejuvenation of Cuba’s intellectual milieu. The three have stood out for their critical stances towards specific aspects of contemporary Cuban reality. Isbel Díaz, for instance, is well known for his environmental activism within Observatorio Crítico. I respect all three and sincerely hope they can participate in a LASA congress this year.
The first observation that comes to mind is that, if the U.S. State Department continues to be so inconsistent when granting visas to Cubans who apply to participate in a LASA congress, the latter will have no choice but to return to the days when it convened in Latin America, as it did back when obstinate George W was in office, and to stop holding congresses on U.S. soil.
I don’t think it has any other option, from the ethical point of view. For the time being, it is duty-bound to spare no effort in persuading the State Department to reconsider its decision and allow these valuable intellectuals to attend the gathering, a privilege which their professional qualifications have earned them.
Having said this, I want to comment on a number of issues, related to the reactions that two of the above individuals have expressed in articles published in a number of blogs and digital periodicals.
First of all, I feel that politicizing this matter, seeing it as the demonization of individuals who live in what Washington, through its “colonialist gaze”, perceives as a “communist hell”, is misguided.
Claiming that left-wingers are punished and opposition activists rewarded is both a confused and confusing statement. The truth is that the granting or denial of these types of visas has nothing to do with the ideology of the applicant (with whether the applicant, for instance, is a left-wing, environmental or LGTB activist). These ideologies, and many more, co-exist on American soil and cause no scandal.
The selection process doesn’t even appear to have clear professional criteria. As is evident, valuable representatives of Cuba’s intellectual sector, respected high-level professionals from across the continent, and emerging young figures, deserving of their recognition, all attend LASA’s congresses.
Claiming that left-wingers are punished and opposition activists rewarded is both a confused and confusing statement. The truth is that the granting or denial of these types of visas has nothing to do with the ideology of the applicant (with whether the applicant, for instance, is a left-wing, environmental or LGTB activist).
Those of us who have attended previous LASA congresses also know that Cuba’s “delegation” always includes as many “cops” as you find outside Havana’s Coppelia ice cream parlor on a Saturday night. Some are on the payroll of Cuban State Security; others are envoys of the country’s propaganda machine. Some are active agents, while others are retirees offering collateral services. Some are “good cops” and some are “bad cops”. But all, and this is the crucial point, perform work that has very little to do with free academic debate.
You see them at every congress, living off the LASA association’s budget, intimidating the real scholars and transforming Cuba’s Task Force into a confusing and shady extension of the Cuban Communist Party’s Ideological Department. These parasites are a greater obstacle to the participation of Cuban scholars in LASA fora than the U.S. State Department.
These individuals, despite their ideologies, function and affiliations, despite their lack of even a basic academic curriculum, are allowed into U.S. territory. I recall that last year, the Cuban government’s golden girl, Mariela Castro, was granted a visa, while Oscar Zanetti, Cuba’s most learned living historian, a man whose erudition far outshines any political inclination he may have, was denied one.
The selection process is that much unjust and counter-productive. But it is not necessarily arbitrary.
Except in highly exceptional cases vetoed by U.S. immigration policy, the reasons travel visas are denied simply have to do with bureaucratic eligibility factors and quotas.
They have to do with questions as mundane as whether the person is considered a potential illegal immigrant or the number of times they have visited the United States in the previous 12 months, but not with ideologies.
In the end, the person who denied these people their visas hasn’t the slightest idea as to whether they are left-wing activists or right-wing extremists. For he has denied a visa to a number with a category next to it, which is what all of us ultimately are in these types of bureaucratic procedures which involve thousands of people.
If those denied a visa did not understand the idea behind the interview process or the need to support the claim that they would return to Cuba with convincing arguments, the blame can be laid only on them, or on Cuba’s lack of Internet access.
The United States has a web-page with very detailed information about these matters, with so much information, in fact, that it is sometimes overwhelming. And, we have to admit, it is a country with one of the most transparent of immigration systems. I am not saying it is a just system, only that there is a wealth of information available to the public which suffices for making informed decisions and evaluating their costs.
Simplemente recuerdo que el Estado cubano sí impide a sus nacionales emigrados regresar libremente a su país y gozar de los derechos que debiera otorgarles el suelo y la sangre. Y de hecho hay todo un sector intelectual cubano emigrado de muy altos quilates que no puede entrar a Cuba, o que solo puede hacerlo puntualmente.
I doubt the U.S. government promised LASA that it would grant all visas requested, as one of the people denied one angrily affirms. No government would do such a thing, not before knowing who the applicants are. And, again, though I feel it was a mistake to have denied these young intellectuals a travel visa, every State has the right to decide who enters or leaves its territory, and sets down classifying parameters for this.
I am a supporter of open borders, but, until we reach this lofty goal, a goal that, in all certainty, I will not live to see, we must understand and respect a country’s sovereign right to manage its territory as it sees fit.
I think it is an exaggeration to state that this regrettable incident sheds light on the extent to which bureaucrats can “(…) become dehumanized in their unwavering compliance with orders from above.”
In truth, this has nothing to do with dehumanizing bureaucracies (blaming all of our woes on the poor bureaucrats has become customary these days). I also don’t think the matter is so serious that one should seek to expose it as the work of the devil incarnate.
I would go as far as saying that these young Cubans, critically-minded and intelligent as they are, should have had more than enough reasons to detect more dehumanizing elements in Cuba’s migratory situation.
Suffice it to remind readers that the Cuban government bars many citizens who have emigrated from freely returning to their country of origin, and from enjoying the rights they ought to have on the land of their birth. There is, in fact, an entire sector, composed of highly-renowned Cuban intellectual émigrés, who are denied entry into Cuba, or who can visit the country under very specific circumstances.
This is the reason they cannot organize any kind of exchange with their fellow Cubans, or publish anything on Cuban journals, or offer lectures at any university, or attend any academic gathering, gatherings as academic, at least, as those organized by LASA.
I think it is worth remembering that, even though historical differences between Cuba and the United States always add a unique dimension to this whole situation, the crux of the matter is that to travel around the world with a Cuban passport, today, means situating oneself at the lowest rung of the migratory food chain. Not because we are left-wing, but because we are poor.
As an inveterate optimist, I trust that this situation will be resolved and the three excommunicated applicants will be able to arrive in Washington in time for the congress, to their benefit, and to the benefit of LASA and the entire international intellectual community.
(*) A Havana Times translation of the original published by Cubaencuentro.com.