The Latin American Studies Association met last week as it does every 18 months, hosting thousands of scholars in every field of endeavor. This time, however, 55 scholars from Cuba were denied visas by the Bush administration. The number of Cuban scholars granted visas has abruptly diminished since September 11, 2001. In 2000, 100 came to the meeting in Miami, prompting virulent protests and threats from the Miami Cuban émigré community. In 2002, only 60 of the 105 Cuban professors, authors, and students invited were allowed to come into the country. This year and in 2004, when the last congress was held, not a single scholar from Cuba was allowed to attend.
The Miami meeting was a tense one; any time that we left the conference hotel, hysterical Cuban expatriates assailed us. Anyone who watched the Elian Gonzalez drama unfolding on television knows to what I refer. The safety measures within the hotel were intense; our briefcases and portfolios were checked at various points within the hotel lest a fanatic bring his violence into our midst. Most of us appreciated the conference organizers’ precautions but it was disheartening to think that an academic meeting could become the focus of physical threats. What happened to “reasonable men will differ?" What happened to academic freedom? And many – if not most--of the topics discussed at these conferences have no political content, and are not related to Cuba. The vocal opponents of Castro’s Cuba have been allowed to disrupt scholarly research and set a tone of intolerance and censorship -- are they the only voices on this issue that the Bush administration listens to?
Academic freedom is not specifically protected by the constitution but it is inferred from the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which protects freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly; for what do scholars do but speak, write, and come together to discuss ideas? What danger is there in that? If we don’t have freedom of speech, are we a free society, or are we really no better than the dictatorships that our government claims to oppose? Sadly, few societies have respected academic freedom.
The Bush administration has used the attacks on September 11, 2001 to justify every invasion of our civil rights that it can find or invent. Now his administration has denied scholars visas to enter the United States to meet with their peers. Does he think that he prevented potential bombardiers from blowing up buildings? (Clearly he doesn’t know any academics!) Does he think that barring them from an academic meeting will hasten Castro’s downfall? Does he think that he prevented radical professors from sneaking into the country to contaminate our universities? Or does he think he effectively protected American professors from the polluting influence of Castro’s minions? Yet he allowed Cuba’s baseball team to enter our space last week for the World Baseball Classic in Puerto Rico. Maybe if the Cuban academics wore matching uniforms and spit periodically, Bush would have felt more inclined to let them in!
LASA’s International Congress is an exciting conference. It is interdisciplinary, multiethnic, and multilingual. In the sessions I attended, I heard papers in Spanish and Portuguese as well as in English. In the workshops, panels, and roundtable discussions, as well as in the hallways, intellectual discourse is at a level that most of us do not experience on a day by day basis. After all, our daily lives are filled with solitary study and the rigorous work of teaching young people to think, to question, to envision. To a layperson, such topics as “Political Participation and Urban Governance,” “Expressive Bodies: De-Centering Culture in Brazil and the Caribbean,” “Radical Dynamics in Latin American Schooling,” or “Health Public Policy in Historic and Ethnographic Perspective,” may sound utterly soporific but to those of us whose quotidian energies are consumed in teaching others, LASA is exhilarating and very satisfying.
Undoubtedly there were panels on subjects of interest to the Left but with 924 sessions spread over a five-day period, the thousands of Latin Americanists who attended the congress had far more than Cuba on their minds. I can only imagine that my Cuban colleagues bitterly regretted losing the opportunity to exercise their intellectual muscles and refresh their spirits.
Even during the Cold War, President Reagan did not interfere with intellectual exchange. Why has President Bush locked out Cuban scholars for the last two years? Is he heeding the wild ramblings of Conservative crackpot David Horowitz who recently published a book naming the 100 most dangerous professors? Horowitz’s criterion is that the mere presentation of any left-of-center ideas to college students constitutes brainwashing. He either has no children (if he did he might know that young people have a tendency to question what they are told) or has never been a college professor, for he appears to believe that the function of a college professor is to indoctrinate one’s students into parroting their beliefs. If he is Bush’s point man on this issue, we are all in trouble. Wouldn’t exposing Cubans and U.S. academics to each other allow them to figure out the shortcomings of their system? Our free system can withstand it, and theirs would be exposed by it.
Castro has been justly criticized for abridging free speech in Cuba but how can the United States call him to task when we do precisely what we accuse him of doing? Even though we do not maintain an embassy in Cuba, James Cason, the chief of Mission of the Special Interests Section in Cuba-the official representative of the U.S., openly incites the Cuban government by holding meetings to encourage dissent and counter-revolution. Would a U.S. diplomat be allowed to stay in the host country if he or she was advocating that the government of that country be overthrown? Have Chinese scholars been allowed to participate in conferences on American soil? China has a terrible human rights record. Why is Cuba treated so differently from other countries?
It must gall Castro that in addition to being forced to accept the U.S. presence in Guantanamo, the result of a rigged agreement in the years following the Spanish-Cuban American war, Cuban territory is being used to hold hundreds of detainees illegally and in defiance of the Geneva Conventions. Since the inception of the revolution in Cuba, Castro has refused to cash the “rent” checks for the use of Guantanamo. Would we stand for a foreign power occupying the southern tip of Florida, for instance? Only our superior size and weaponry enforces this abusive continuation of an unwanted occupation.
College professors in Cuba, as in this country, are concerned with the intellectual development of their students. Reasonable people on both sides wish to find a way to end the embargo without further recourse to violence. Perhaps we could begin to tolerate each other’s form of government better if we discussed our differences over coffee rather than in the shadow of a howitzer. Cultural isolation leads to the narcissistic belief that we alone possess beauty and truth.
Even though Bush can bar Americans from travelling to Cuba, he cannot quarantine ideas. At LASA, Chicano filmmaker Hector Cruz Sandoval previewed his film Korda Vision: A Cuban Revelation about the late fashion photographer-turned-chronicler of the Cuban Revolution who was known around the world for his iconic photograph of Che Guevara. Scholars who earlier in the day might have attended sessions where they listened to colleagues from across the political spectrum welcomed the movie enthusiastically. Korda’s deep love for the revolution shines through every frame of the film. And every person in that auditorium will tell his or her friends, students, and colleagues, and they will tell theirs, and Bush’s purpose will be frustrated.
The point of a free society should be to encourage freedom, not to suppress it. Bush claims that he is spreading freedom around the globe but his idea of freedom is selective and his treatment of Cuba, criminal. One cannot help suspecting that the standoff has less to do with truth than with a staged showdown for the benefit of Jeb Bush’s presidential ambitions or just the simple unwillingness to compromise. Ideas cannot be suppressed for long, Mr. President, just as lies cannot be hidden forever. Both have a disconcerting habit of popping up where they are least expected.
Rosa Maria Pegueros, Associate Professor of Latin American History and Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org