You know how Washington works (when it works). Opposing factions come together and “give something to get something.” At a time when the machinery of government is so obviously broken, some would argue that more compromise is needed.
For a variety of reasons, a compromise that the Obama administration seems to have brokered – with whom we do not know – has badly backfired and compromised some pretty important principles. It comes as no surprise that this story is about an egregious misstep on Cuba.
By way of background, the Latin America Studies Association (or “LASA”) will meet next week in San Francisco. LASA, the most important organization of scholars who study the region, stopped coming to the U.S. for its meetings because the U.S. would not grant visas to Cubans who wanted to participate and it decided not to return to the U.S. until the problem was fixed.
Or so it thought. For next week’s conference, approximately 80 Cubans were invited and applied for visas so they could enter the United States to do so. According to this afternoon’s State Department Daily Press Briefing, of 77 received applications, 60 have been approved, 11 were denied and 6 are pending - for a conference that begins just five days from today.
Who got selected and who got rejected? Mariela Castro Espin, the renowned champion of gay rights who heads the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, who previously visited the United States under a visa granted by the administration of George W. Bush, was among those Cubans allowed entry to attend LASA next week.
But Soraya Castro Marino, who came to the U.S. in 2010 as a visiting scholar at Harvard was, according to The Washington Post, “found ineligible this time because her presence would ‘detrimental to the interests of the United States’.” Rafael Hernandez, a scholar who also taught at Harvard and the University of Texas, Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban Ambassador to the European Union, Oscar Zanetti, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a scholar at American University, and several others who had previously received visas from the administration over the last several year were denied visas now – because their presence would be detrimental to the U.S.
The Obama administration is enforcing no consistent principle for determining who should enter and attend LASA. If decision makers thought welcoming some and turning away others would win them plaudits they were sadly mistaken.
Phil Brenner, a professor and Cuba scholar at American University, called the decisions “arbitrary, shameful, and cowardly.” He observed that many of the scholars denied visas “have a history of advocating for improved relations with the United States.” Ted Piccone, an official at the Brookings Institution who was expecting Carlos Alzugaray at an upcoming event, called it “baffling. I wish I knew what their thinking was.”
If the administration’s strategy was to buy cheap grace with the hardliners who oppose any dialogue or engagement with Cuba by denying visas to some of Cuba’s most open and incisive intellectuals, this was a total failure.
As the Miami Herald reported, the decision to issue a visa to Mariela Castro, President Raúl Castro’s daughter, drew “irate criticism” from Cuban Americans in Congress.
Senator Bob Menendez said the U.S. government and LASA should not be “in the business of providing a totalitarian regime, like the one in Cuba, with a platform for which to espouse its twisted rhetoric.” Senator Marco Rubio called the decision an “outrageous and enormous mistake.” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called the decision “beyond comprehension.”
The administration was wrong to compromise not just because it satisfied no one or because no one “gave something to get something.” It was wrong because the compromise was truly detrimental to the interests of the United States.
The U.S. has a policy of punishing Cuba because we object to features of the Cuban system that limit the rights of travel and expression. The policy has accomplished none of its stated objectives for half a century. Our government undermines whatever moral credibility the policy has left by stopping intellectuals from Cuba – who think freely and speak openly about repairing the U.S.-Cuban relationship – from traveling to our country so they could participate in an academic conference…for goodness sakes.
Is it possible that one Cuban invited to attend LASA could utter what Senator Menendez calls “twisted rhetoric” if given the chance? Perhaps. But we think our country is strong enough to withstand the shock. And even if what the Cubans have to say isn’t controversial, we should be committed to their right to come and speak. That is, what might call, the American way.
Obama should reverse the denials and welcome them in.