March 31, 2015 by Lisandro Pérez
A New Era? The Outlook for U.S.-Cuba Academic Relations
A new era in U.S.-Cuba relations was ushered in on December 17th when the presidents of both countries announced they were prepared to end nearly six decades of estrangement. I had nearly lost hope that in my lifetime there would be a rapprochement between my adopted nation and the island where I was born and which I left 55 years ago with my parents.
I have made the study of my homeland my academic career, so I could not be more thrilled about the prospect of a normalization of relations. I also welcome the evident rise in interest in Cuba among universities and nonprofits in the United States since the announcement. In February I participated as a panelist in a teleconference on Cubaorganized by the Institute of International Education. The event drew an audience of some 180 representatives of colleges, universities, and academic organizations from throughout the country.
For those in the academic and nonprofit sectors who are planning Cuba-related activities for the first time, it is important to realize that, unlike what many are assuming here in the United States, things have not suddenly changed and, in fact, some of the more challenging aspects of establishing academic contacts with Cuba are not likely to change anytime soon. The success of any institution venturing into the Cuba field will depend on having realistic expectations of what can be accomplished, familiarity with a fairly unique context for international academic relations, and an ability to overcome frustrations and obstacles.
The keys are: pragmatism, perseverance, and patience.
One reason the December 17th announcement is not a game changer in terms of academic contacts is that such contacts have long been allowed by both governments, albeit with difficulties. The U.S. embargo has for years exempted legitimate academic travel from its provisions. Strong academic ties and friendships have been forged through the years despite the history of hostility between the two governments. Cuban participation in the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), for example, dates back to the early 1970s, and the association’s Cuba section, which I am privileged to co-chair this year with a colleague and friend from Cuba, now numbers 533 members with an almost even representation of Cuban and non-Cuban members. Cuban-American scholars have been among those who have worked to strengthen those ties, along with colleagues from throughout the United States, Canada, and the rest of the hemisphere. Many colleges and universities in the United States have years of experience sending their students to Cuba.
Those who have engaged in those contacts, however, have faced stiff challenges, challenges that are likely to persist into a new era of relations. Both governments, for example, have frequently used political criteria to grant or deny visas to scholars.
But perhaps the greatest source of frustration when one engages with Cuba is that any visit to the island for academic purposes must go through official channels. Although the United States still does not allow tourist travel to Cuba, the Cubans will normally issue a tourist visa to the bearer of a U.S. passport. But that tourist visa cannot be used to enter Cuba for purposes other than tourism, such as research or study. Visas for academic activities are issued by the Foreign Ministry once it approves a formal request from an academic or research entity that has reviewed the purpose and plan for the trip. The Cuban entity then becomes responsible for the visitors, even arranging logistics, such as charter buses for student groups, as most such needs are provided only by state enterprises.
The review and approval process results in a backlog of requests from U.S. scholars and universities to visit the island. The entity that up to now has shouldered the burden of processing those proposals is the Office of International Relations of the University of Havana, although other state-affiliated intellectual, research, and cultural organizations have also served as hosts for visitors. This process of official approval for visits or programs causes a severe funnel effect that requires partners in the United States to make plans as far in advance as possible, be flexible on dates, and have patience.
Newcomers to Cuba exchanges should be keenly aware that the island’s academic, research, and cultural institutions are very rich in intellectual resources. The range and depth of the scholarship is impressive and builds on a strong tradition of intellectual work that dates back to the early 19th century. This May’s annual LASA Congress has 368 colleagues from Cuba on the program.
Knowledge of the history of academic contact and of the intellectual richness found in the island’s institutions is important in order to avoid approaching Cuba with a Columbus-like attitude. It is important to follow the universal norms of international scholarly engagement: respect and reciprocity. Don’t just ask what you or your students can get out of establishing ties with Cuba. Bring something to the table that would be of interest to your Cuban counterparts. Figure out how Cuban scholars can enrich your institution’s research and teaching, and find a way to facilitate that by inviting them to your campus. Travel abroad is highly valued by Cuban colleagues.
While Cuban academic institutions are rich in intellectual resources, they are poor in material resources. At present, exchanges have to be funded entirely by the U.S. side. Visitors from Cuba must be fully sponsored, and academics from the United States must have their own sources of support when traveling to Cuba. Even when and if it becomes possible, it is not likely that Cuban students coming to the United States to enroll in degree programs will be self-supporting.
A select group of foundations and other nonprofits in the United States have long supported and facilitated Cuban academic exchanges. The Ford and the Christopher Reynolds Foundations, as well as the Social Science Research Council stand out in this regard. Hopefully, this new opening in relations will encourage other organizations to support academic and cultural ties with Cuba. The Institute of International Education has signaled its intention to be a player in expanding U.S.-Cuba partnerships.
This new era of bilateral relations may make it possible for Cuba to be included in the many international education programs funded by the U.S. government, something that has long been barred not just by Washington, but also by Havana. Thus far, the only noteworthy U.S. government support for work on Cuba is the Department of State’sUSAID program that funds surreptitious activities in the island designed to bring about changes in the Cuban political system. Not surprisingly, the Cuban government has forbidden the island’s educational and academic institutions from entering into projects that have U.S. government support.
When and if legitimate U.S. government programs, such as the Fulbright and Benjamin Gilman awards and U.S. Department of Education institutional grants for international study, are opened up to participation by Cuban scholars and Cuba-bound scholars and students in the United States, it is likely that Cuban officials will permit participation in such programs. That would have a huge impact, as would the possibility that Cuban institutions and scholars may apply directly to U.S. sources of support, public and private.
Cuba is a uniquely fascinating place because of the resilience and warmth of its people, its extraordinary and frequently tragic history at the crossroads of the hemisphere and in the cross hairs of the United States, its tradition of resistance and revolution, and the complex mosaic of its culture and artistic expressions. That is why I cringe when I hear people say they want to experience Cuba “before it changes,” as if its principal value could be reduced to a Cold War tropical theme park, with its quaintly decaying buildings and vintage Chevys and Fords. Cuban history, society, and culture offer much richer learning opportunities, beyond the nostalgic allure of its frozen-in-time landscape.
Lisandro Pérez is a professor and chair of the department of Latin American and Latina/o studies at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
An excellent summary. Three additions: