Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I Beg to Differ: Academic Exchange with Cuba

Dear Cuba Watchers,

I wanted to call your attention to two news stories about academic exchange in Cuba that appeared this week. The first is "Push for Student Exchanges With Cuba Hits Obstacles, Both Political and Academic" by Paul Basken from The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 9, 2010). The other, "Piden a Obama que levante las restricciones para viajes de académicos a Cuba," is from El Nuevo Herald.

I just submitted the following letter to the editor of The Chronicle and thought I'd share it with readers of El Yuma.

"La isla que soñaba con ser un continente" - Sandra Ramos

Dear Editor,

Re: "Push for Student Exchanges With Cuba Hits Obstacles, Both Political and Academic" by Paul Basken from The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 9, 2010).

Having done the bulk of my dissertation research in Cuba between 1997 and 2001 (though not through an affiliation with any official Cuban government or academic organization), my experience is that it is indeed possible to do "real" research in Cuba. However, as with any research it is the scholar's responsibility to remain clear sighted about the particular constraints and opportunities of any research context.

The key word in understanding the Cuban research and academic context is indeed government control. The Cuban government has a long record of controlling access to the island in order to keep unflattering data and analysis, especially from social scientists, to a minimum. It also arrogantly and unjustifiably gives itself the right to determine which of its own scholars can travel abroad to do research or participate in international conferences. However, these condemnable practices should not be used as a justification for continuing our own failed policy of isolation. Nor do they make fruitful research, collaboration with Cuban scholars, or student learning impossible. On the contrarly, Cuba's closed, insular environment often makes the island a richer and more vital learning and research environment for younger students and scholars coming from abroad.

In fact, from my experience doing research in Cuba (both in my past research on Cuba's underground economy and in my current research on its emergent blogosphere) and from helping to operate past academic (at Tulane University's Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute) and cultural exchange programs (with the CubaNola Arts Collective) in Cuba, I would argue that academic travel to Cuba by U.S. undergraduates and graduate students is among the very best and most intellectually challenging and stimulating experiences students can have.

It is also a quiet but very effective way to achieve one of President Obama's chief foreign policy goals vis-a-vis Cuba - to increase people-to-people contacts between the citizens of each country and contribute to breaking the Cuban government's own "blockade" - its monopoly on information and careful screening of outside contacts.

Finally, I reject Jorge Sanguinetty's insinuation quoted in the article that scholars or students aim to go to Cuba to simply lie on the beach, "under the guise of research." And I am frankly insulted by his categorical dismissal that, "You cannot do real research in Cuba."

In fact, the organization of which he is the current president, the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, awarded me its highest student prize in 2002 when I was a graduate student for research I did entirely in Cuba ("A Taste of Capitalism: The Rise and Fall of Havana’s Private Paladar Restaurants”). Indeed, after earning my Ph.D., I was elected to two terms on ASCE's Board of Directors (2004-2006 and 2006-2008) and have been a past member of the ASCE committee that seeks to recruit graduate and undergraduate students to submit their own papers (the vast majority of which are based on research done in Cuba) for that same annual prize awarded at the organization's annual conference in Miami.

While Sanguinetty beleives that there's a "tremendous amount of hypocrisy by the educational system in the United States" regarding the potential for authentic academic research and exchange with Cuba, I respectfully offer that it is perhaps himself who is the one being hypocritical when his own organization encourages and awards prizes to young scholars like me who do just that.

Ted Henken, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Acting Chair
Department of Black and Hispanic Studies
Baruch College, City University of New York


  1. Hey Ted, we link you. Also, I had in mind to write something on this, and you gave me the extra push. Con animo de polemizar...

    Saludos, ariana

  2. Rob...
    As a Canadian with 15 years experience working in Cuba (as a student, as a professor, and as a consultant and lawyer), I would respectfully submit that you missed one important point in your letter to the editor: you did not mention that allowing students and scholars to do research in Cuba also helps break the myth that Cuba is some sort of Stalinist tropical gulag. It is an authoritarian country with a 50 year old fortress mentality, but it is not as bad as what most US citizens think. Knowing many US students and scholars who have spent time here has confirmed this. There is an information blockade/embargo in the US which also needs to be broken...
    Atentamente, Gregory Biniowsky