On U.S.-Cuba Relations: Do you believe in the power of ideas?

September 28, 2012

Today, on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, a conference is taking place titled: Cuba & California, Prospects for Change and Opportunity.

Our colleague, Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat, and until last month a distinguished professor at the University of Havana, was scheduled to give a keynote address today on Prospects for US-Cuban Relations.  Dr. Alzugaray arrived very late, which reveals little about his usual penchant for punctuality and much about the prospects for a changed relationship with Cuba.

Invited to speak at the conference months ago, Dr. Alzugaray applied for his visa and went through the ritualistic process of being interviewed once again by U.S. consular officials in Havana,to justify his reason to visit the United States. He had been a visiting scholar at several U.S. universities over many years, most recently last Fall at City University of New York.  After his multiple inquiries and a long delay, the U.S. Interests Section informed him yesterday morning to expect his visa at noon, giving him just enough time to catch his 4:00 p.m. flight to Miami. By 1:00 there was still no visa, and at 4:30 p.m. he learned there had been an unexplained delay, and the visa would not be available. He went for a walk with his granddaughter and at 5:30 p.m. returned home to learn the visa would be waiting for him at the Interests Section until it closed at 6:00 p.m. A kind consular official waited there until 6:30, and Dr. Alzugaray managed to get on an 8:00 p.m. plane to Miami and an early morning flight to California. Adding insult to this shameful – and at the least incompetent – exercise in disrespect, TSA officers detained the 69-year old professor for three hours when he arrived in Miami.

Another colleague, Rafael Hernández, editor of the internationally acclaimed journal Temas, wasn’t so lucky.  Although he’d been invited to speak at the same conference and applied for a visa at the same time Dr. Alzugaray had applied, Dr. Hernández still has not received notice of whether his visa application has been approved or denied. He had to cancel his trip.

If you think this is bizarre behavior by a country that is deeply critical of the Cuban system, and any restrictions on travel and freedom of expression, we couldn’t agree more.

The battle over U.S.-Cuba relations has been long fought, is deeply complicated, and never works out well during the heat of a presidential election amidst dueling definitions of “American exceptionalism.”

One set of battle lines in this debate, however, seems pretty simple and clear.  One side believes in isolation, blocking Americans from visiting Cuba and stopping Cubans from visiting the U.S.  They don’t want our fellow citizens exposed to the realities of Cuba (the good or the bad) and don’t want Americans hearing speeches by people like Carlos Alzugaray or Rafael Hernández, because they want us to be ignorant of Cuba, its complexity, and prefer us to live with the mysteries and fears dating from the beginning of the Cold War that linger to this day.

That side, centered among the hardest of hardliners in Miami, exerts staggering control over U.S. policy toward the island, and games the system to extend that control, sometimes in peculiar and tawdry ways.  If you don’t believe us, you might read this story from the Miami Herald about the scandal engineered by Rep. David Rivera in his reelection campaign that will astonish those who still refer to publications as “family newspapers.”

The other side believes that Americans are smart enough to figure out Cuba for themselves and ought to be given the opportunity to do so – not only by visiting the island but also by having opportunities, like many should have in Berkeley today to hear Cubans visiting the U.S. speak.  These opinions, incidentally, are increasingly held by Cuban Americans in Miami and elsewhere who are now traveling to Cuba by the hundreds of thousands every year.  Together, this is the side that believes in the power of engagement, debate, and ideas.

So, it came as a surprise and a disappointment to us that someone sitting in Washington, who works for the Obama administration and has the power to approve visa applications, didn’t behave like we were on that side of the engagement versus isolation debate.   Of course, that might change after the election.  Or not.

Read the rest of this entry »