Cuban Scholars at Harvard

By Lorena Barberia

Since the David Rockefeller Center first opened its doors in 1994, it has played host to over 60 Cuban visiting scholars for extended periods of work and collaboration in fields as diverse as archival preservation and indexing, economics, history, tropical medicine, political science, public administration, and public health. This March, the Center was hoping to host three Cuban scholars who would visit Harvard following the XXVI International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) in Puerto Rico. However, Harvard’s plans to host these scholars were crushed when this group, along with 56 fellow Cuban academics scheduled to attend LASA, did not receive permission by the U.S. State Department to participate in the largest meeting for individuals and institutions engaged in the study of Latin America.

The difficulties in securing U.S. visas for Cuban academics invited to Harvard are not new, though the challenges have increased since September 11, 2001, and the subsequent passage of more restrictive legislation by Congress. Cuban scholars and scientists, even those who have visited the United States many times in the past, have been effectively denied visas because of prolonged delays lasting many months in the processing of their visa applications. In addition to delays in responses to visa petitions, the U.S. State Department has issued outright denials to a significant share of Cuban academics.

In some cases, the United States has denied Cuban scholars visas based on section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which specifies criteria to bar the entry of employees of the Cuban government and members of the Communist Party of Cuba deemed detrimental to U.S. national security interests. Such justification has been used to deny entry to Cuban scholars to participate in the last three LASA International Congresses. In contrast to meetings organized in Miami in 1998, which included 101 scholars, and in Washington, D.C., with another 82 Cuban delegates, only 60 of the 105 Cubans scheduled to participate in LASA’s 2003 annual meeting were able to attend, and only after repeated requests to the U.S. State Department for information on the status of their petitions.

In 2004, the U.S. State Department took the unprecedented step of denying entry to the entire Cuban delegation of 65 scholars one week before the commencement of LASA’s XXV International Congress in Las Vegas. Not since the United States first began allowing Cuban scholars to attend LASA International Congresses, in the 1970s, had the State Department denied entry to such a large group of Cuban academics. This year, the State Department continued to enforce its hard-line policy against Cuban professors considered a threat to the national security of the United States, barring the entire 59-member Cuban delegation, once again, from participating at LASA on the basis of their status as officials of the Cuban government.

Harvard University has also experienced significant difficulty in securing visas for Cuban academics invited as distinguished visiting scholars in the context of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies’ institutional exchange program. Since April 2002, the U.S. government approved only 16 of the 30 invitations that Harvard extended to Cuban scholars. Though visa approvals increased shortly after LASA 2004, progress in securing visas for scholars visiting Harvard University has slowed in recent months. In the last six months, all four scholars who requested visas to travel to Harvard University received section 212(f) denials from the U.S. State Department.

The Latin American Studies Association’s Cuba Section has released statistics indicating that these patterns persist across the United States. Contrary to the U.S. government’s longstanding policy of fostering people-to-people exchanges, the proportion of visas denied to Cuban academics has risen dramatically in recent years. Between September 2004 and November 2005, only 53 percent of professors from the University of Havana who applied for visas received authorization to travel to the United States. The 17 faculty members denied visas include Dr. Vicente Verez-Bencomo, a prize-winning chemist in the University of Havana’s Synthetic Antigens Laboratory. Dr. Verez-Bencomo helped develop a low-cost synthetic vaccine that prevents meningitis and pneumonia in small children, diseases which represent a deadly threat to children worldwide. His vaccine, Science Magazine noted in its October 7, 2005, issue, is one that “may someday save millions of lives.”

Between January 2004 and June 2005, Cuba’s Ministry of Culture reported that only 18 percent of Cuban academics working in the arts and humanities received approval from the U.S. State Department to visit the United States. The State Department issued visa denials to staff and researchers from Cuba’s premier institutes, including the Fundación Ludwig, a non-governmental non-profit organization in Cuba that seeks to protect and promote contemporary Cuban artists and their expression, and Casa de las Américas, the widely respected institution whose prestigious literary prizes receive prominent coverage throughout the Americas.

Despite these increased difficulties, the David Rockefeller Center has remained steadfast in its efforts to bring Cuban scholars to Harvard. The Center has invited 11 scholars from Cuba to conduct short-term research projects at Harvard during the Spring 2006 semester. These scholars are at the forefront of Cuban academic scholarship. While at Harvard, Cuban scholars will seek to advance their work on important topics, including research on issues that have the potential to significantly contribute to improved bilateral relations between the United States and Cuba; for example, research on the prospects for increased trade and for investment in Cuban agriculture, the impact of evolving regional trade in the Americas on U.S.-Cuba trade, the effect of the Presidential Commission on “Assistance to a Free Cuba” on Cuban migration processes, and the role of domestic and international factors in shaping U.S. policy towards Cuba. In other areas, scholars hosted at Harvard will contribute to improved understanding of important issues, such as the effectiveness of Cuba’s programs in treating persons living with AIDS and the changes in social mobility and equity that have taken place over the last decade within Cuban society.

Lorena Barberia is a Program Associate at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University and the co-editor of The Cuban Economy at the Start of the Twenty-First Century (David Rockefeller Center Series on Latin American Studies, distributed by Harvard University Press, 2004).

See also: Cuba, Elections