The first visit to Cuba by a major U.S. academic institution, such as the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), took place forty years ago around this time.
At the head of that delegation was the anthropologist Helen Safa, the second woman elected president of LASA since the organization had been created, sixteen years earlier. Helen was none other than the director of Latin American Studies at the University of Florida in Gainesville, the state’s leading public university, whose budget was approved by the local government. To top it off, Safa had a “leftist reputation,” as she was called the Red Queen of Latin American Studies.
But coming to Cuba was not just a challenge to the powers of Miami, but also to the White House itself. We were at the height of the Central American wars, and of the Reagan administration’s military offensive against Nicaragua, and the Salvadoran and Guatemalan guerrillas.
A general named Alexander Haig, U.S. Secretary of State, had said in public a few months before that the solution to that “low intensity conflict,” according to Pentagon jargon, was “going to the source”; in other words, to bomb the Cuban airports from which, according to them, the weapons for the Central American fighters came out.
In private, General Haig had told Reagan, with a usual expression among the military and politicians who waged the Vietnam War, that at a signal from the president, those Cuban airports could be transformed into “a parking lot” by the power of the U.S. Air Force.
It wasn’t a game.
It is worth remembering this, because when some current chroniclers evoke those years in which we dedicated ourselves to digging shelters and doing militia practices (the War of All the People), it would seem that it was an arbitrary policy (“a Castro obsession”), aimed at “distracting attention from the country’s problems.”
I only mention, in passing, that we were living in the years of the highest standard of living under Cuban socialism, when migratory pressure came precisely from having opened a dialogue with emigration, and that leaving and returning every so often was a new horizon. And I evoke it, above all, because it is relevant to understand the kind of uphill that the academic exchange had to face.
In another article I have told part of this story and its champions. Academicians such as the historian Louis A. Pérez, the literature professor Emilio Bejel, the agrarian economist William Messina, the professor María Cristina Herrera, the sociologist Lisandro Pérez, had to defend the exchanges with Cuba in the capital of anti-Castroism (Florida), which is why they suffered pressure from the established powers, threats, visits from the FBI, and the occasional bomb in front of their homes; in addition to the suspicion of their own institutions, on which their jobs depended, and their subsistence and that of their families.
Then would come the Torricelli Act (1992) with its two-track policy: blockade and “supporting the Cuban people.” The latter consisted of assistance provided by “appropriate NGOs, to support individuals and organizations that promote nonviolent democratic change in Cuba.”
Nowhere did the Act mention academic and cultural exchanges, not a word about sectors of Cuban society such as youth, artists, academicians, scientists, or journalists or the military. But the old idea of creating turbulence for the Cuban government by promoting belligerent anti-communist groups, violent or not, echoed the image of the dissidents of Eastern Europe and the USSR, agitated the recent scenario of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and conditioned a psychological effect of carrot as harmful as the stick itself, due to the autoimmune reaction that it aroused among us.
Indeed, in the aftermath of Perestroika, some in Cuba coined and circulated the term “soft parties” to identify sectors supposedly more vulnerable to the enemy’s policy of seduction. I say supposedly because, as is known, those who caused the debacle of Soviet socialism were not precisely these sectors.
Despite a track 1 reinforced by the so-called Helms-Burton Act (1996), and the autoimmune effect of track 2, cultural and academic exchange would count on more and more Cuban institutions, as corresponded to the main communication bridge with the United States, its society and non-governmental institutions.
A glance at the state of relations during the Obama years can give an accurate idea of its significance.
In 2016 alone, barely the second year of the normalization process, the total flow of artists and intellectuals from both sides reached more than 5,000. Institutions of Plastic Arts, Music, Performing Arts, ICAIC, ISA (now the University of the Arts), the Juan Marinello Institute, became visible on the other side. Although the main weight was carried by the private sector there, public institutions such as the Smithsonian, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Kennedy Center and even the State Department and its cultural programs had interlocutors on the island. None of these institutions, here and there, were dedicated to anything other than facilitating the meeting between artists, an interflow that had been occurring for years.
The performance of the Buena Vista Social Club in the White House or the Van Van in a Miami stadium, a baseball game between players from both sides, or the awarding of a Grammy to the Muñequitos de Matanzas did not require subtitling or simultaneous translation. There is an intimacy between our cultures and histories.
The exchange between the best of art and academia on both shores had a stimulating effect on our cultural production, strengthened communication and gave a boost to bilateral rapport. To that extent, it contributed to the understanding of the Cuban reality in the United States, and vice versa.
In 2015-2016, visits by U.S. artists and institutions made the culture sector the most active area of understanding and progress in these relationships. At the same time, new universities descended on the island; among them, many who had not dreamed of doing it, due to their low budgets, and due to the conditions imposed in previous times.
Touring Havana on foot, talking to young Cubans, sitting on the Malecón, touching the real country in a transition stage, was an opportunity taken advantage of by many students, as well as to build bridges through which to return the following year. It seemed then that we had finally buried the ax of the Cold War and its worst legacy: the legacy of mistrust.
I am not going to repeat what happened later between the two countries, and the costs that we have all had to pay, Americans and Cubans from here and there. The drop in academic and cultural exchanges, where the most progress had been made, was where there was the most regression. The night of Trumpism beyond Trump not only cooled the climate of relations, but also made it easier for some specimens to take flight; part of an epidemic with seasonal characteristics.
As is well known, the U.S. initiative to normalize relations brought with it an ebb of the anti-Castro tide, even in the capital of that industry. Conversely, Trumpism was a greenhouse for mutant species, also in the field of culture and academia.
Artists who had sung in the Plaza de la Revolución; filmmakers who had filmed May Day marches in their movies; professors of Marxist philosophy who invoked Rosa Luxemburg and Haydée Santamaría; veterans of atheism and scientific communism; former leaders of the Federation of University Students (FEU) and the Union of Young Communists (UJC); graduates of Journalism, Social Communication, Law, Psychology, who defended their undergraduate thesis in Cuban universities without problem and that when I met them they worked in the media, academic and cultural institutions; and who went abroad with the support of those institutions’ grants. Who did not leave Cuba escaping repression for their political or religious ideas, nor were they pardoned after having been imprisoned, nor did they take refuge in an embassy, nor did they take a boat at midnight, but rather with a normally processed visa, many times without having resigned to their jobs, nor not getting along with anyone. In any case, without suffering acts of repudiation, or the egg throwing, or moral or physical abuse of any kind, as happened to others. Quietly, with a ticket and through the airport.
Nowhere would they be called exiles, not even dissidents, it seems to me.
Just for exercising the sovereign right of having renounced their previous ideas, reconsidered, disbelieved in what they previously believed, reneged what they did and said, for having discovered, as adults, the intrinsic evil not only of the regime and its leaders, but of the system, once they put water in the middle…. All of this seems to me, if not very respectable in all cases, at least acceptable, since human beings change, and they have the right to do so.
What is unexpected is that now they turn against their former colleagues, call them figureheads of the regime, intellectuals “authorized to criticize the system from time to time,” but subject to the iron grip of the ruling party; agents of the Cuban government in charge of manipulating exchanges, of leaving out those who do not criticize U.S. policy, those who support the continuation of isolation and sanctions; in short, the blockade, as a legitimate instrument to “bring the regime to its knees.”
What goes beyond ideological differences and respect for academic freedom and expression is dedicated to poisoning others, who only know today’s Cuba by ear and are not aware of the history of the armed bridge throughout forty years, based on goodwill and agreeing to disagreements. The objective is for them to contribute to undermining it, to establish requirements and conditions for the participation of academicians from all over Cuba, as if the network of financial controls woven by the United States against everything that involves “Cuba” could allow them income in dollars and to have bank accounts, manage visas without leaving the country to participate in events on equal terms, without “privileges” for living in Cuba and teaching in “Cuban government institutions.”
What goes beyond respectable differences is having turned some of the academic programs established for decades, through which Cuban intellectuals and artists of all colors have passed before, into hunting grounds for that kind of dissidence, more recalcitrant than any previous one, privileged with the financing of agencies dedicated to promoting regime change, and whose names and photos can be easily found on the websites of those same institutions as students, fellows, program coordinators, etc.
I have known personally for a long time some of those cavalrymen dedicated to taking academic exchange by storm, I keep their letters and affectionate messages, praising the work of Temas magazine and the debates on the last Thursday of the month, inviting me to participate in panels and books that they were editing, participating in debates and exchanges, as well as, of course, their essays that we published not so long ago, and which are still accessible.
A rereading of those “before and after” could at least help others, less intoxicated, to provide the equanimity and common sense necessary to free U.S. academic institutions and organizations from endless ideological disputes that are counterproductive for everyone.
Cubans here and there who defend academic and cultural exchange have to continue promoting it, without waiting for favorable conditions to be created. There is plenty that can be done, especially on our side, even if a favorable political scenario does not occur or patrons to promote them appear.
A dialogue between Cubans on both sides would be inseparable from cultural and academic exchange. Conversely, those who demand restrictions and conditions for the exchange try to turn the debate of ideas into an ideological swamp, into which to drag all dialogue and cooperation.
We shall see.