Cuban Connections

by | Apr 20, 1998

Since its founding in December 1994, DRCLAS has worked to facilitate academic and cultural exchanges with Cuba. Cuban scholars have visited the Center for periods as long as a semester. Harvard faculty and students have conducted research with Center support in Cuba.

In early March of this year, for example,DRCLAS director John Coatsworth traveled to Cuba with a Harvard delegation to attend a meeting of historians at the Cienfuegos Provincial Archive. The group, which included former Massachusetts Congressman Chester Atkins, also visited the Cienfuegos Botanical Garden located adjacent to the Soledad sugar plantation that once belonged to the Atkins family.

The Cienfuegos Provincial Archive contains the records of the Soledad plantation, expropriated by the Cuban government in 1961 as part of the Agrarian Reform proclaimed after the victory of the Revolution in 1959. The conference, organized by Archive Director Orlando García and University of Michigan historian Rebecca Scott, focused on the history of the Cienfuegos area during Cuba’s independence wars (1868-78, 1895-98). A number of papers presented at the meeting used the Soledad plantation records to trace people and events during those turbulent years. Another meeting of historians is tentatively planned for the coming year.

Harvard’s Program for Latin American Libraries and Archives (PLALA), which makes small (under $20,000) grants to help institutions preserve endangered collections and facilitate access to them, awarded a grant to the Cienfuegos Provincial Archive last spring. Archive director García visited Harvard in October and delivered a lecture on the “Cienfuegos Brigade,” the locally-recruited regiment of mostly former slaves that fought in the 1895-98 war .

PLALA Executive Director, Widener Bibliographer Dan Hazen, joined the Harvard group at the conference. He consulted with the Archive’s staff and prepared a report that recommended urgent steps to improve preservation of documents. The Archive is located in an old house with leaky plumbing, a single unreliable air conditioner, too little space, wooden shelves that attract insects, and inadequate supplies and equipment.

The Botanical Garden once formed part of the huge Soledad plantation. It was donated by the Atkins family to Harvard in 1901. Known as the Harvard Botanical Garden until the Cuban Government took it over in 1961, it suffered extensive hurricane damage in 1996. With help from Spain and elsewhere, the staff of the Garden managed to restore it with minimal loss of species. Coatsworth discussed renewing cooperation and scientific exchanges between Harvard and the Botanical Garden as the garden prepares to celebrate its centenary in the year 2000.

Meanwhile, other Harvard contacts and exchanges with Cuba are developing rapidly. Coatsworth completed negotiations for a program of exchanges in economics and business with the University of Havana’s Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy during his March trip. The Loeb Fellows program of the Graduate School of Design, with DRCLAS support, is collaborating with the city of Havana’s Grupo para el Desarrollo Integral de la Capital (Group for the Overall Development of the Capital) in city planning. DRCLAS has tentative plans to co-sponsor a conference on Cuban-U.S. cultural relations with Cuba’s Instituto Juan Marinello next winter.

At a recent March 13 conference co-sponsored by DRCLAS, Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs (WCFIA), and the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Coatsworth observed, “The US embargo on Cuba is bad public policy. It makes the exchange of information and ideas between Cuba and the United States much more difficult and reduces prospects for peaceful economic and institutional change on the island. The effects of the embargo run contrary to its stated goals.”

The meeting’s keynote speaker, Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston, was introduced by Prof. Jorge I. Domínguez, WCFIA Director, who accompanied the Cardinal and a plane full of New England political and civic leaders to Cuba to witness the Pope’s historic visit to the island in February. Cardinal Law criticized the U.S. embargo and called for the creation of a bi-partisan presidential commission to take a fresh look at U.S. policy toward Cuba. (President Clinton announced several small steps toward relaxation of the embargo less than two weeks later, but left most restrictions in place.)

Spring 1998

John H. Coatsworth is Monroe Gutman Professor of Latin American Affairs and director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.

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