Thursday, May 5, 2011

Dear Anonymous: Academic exchange goes both ways

The following comment appeared in response to my "esta será tu ultima vez" post late this afternoon:

"Ted, you've been allowed to go to Cuba 15 times. Just how many times do you think a Cuban communist would be admitted to the US to meet up with American leftists? Zero. And Cuba has legitimate security fears, unlike the US."

My English readers should know that I am in the process of translating my previous post into English. But, while I don't know who this particular anonymous is, his/her question is quite representative of one strain of progressive American thought vis-a-vis Cuba and deserves a thorough response in English.

Dear Anonymous,

I share your anger at US government double standards and recognize that all countries - especially the USA under "W." - can be arbitrary and even vindictive about who it lets in and why - especially when it comes to Cubans who are not coming to defect or immigrate but to do academic or political work.

However, you are wrong on three key points:

1) The US does in fact let Cuban communists in to meet with US leftists. I am one of the "leftists" whom they meet with! Although these are mainly academic and cultural meetings not political ones.

What's more, just a month ago in New York we at the Bildner Center hosted a large delegation of what you crudely call "Cuban communists" including a number of "communist economists" like Omar Everleny Perez, Pavel Vidal, Armando Nova, and Camila Pineiro-Harnecker (see their and other presentations on changes to Cuba's economy here). All were very sharp, frank, and open to tough questions; and none had the blood of Cuban children running down their chins.

That delegation also included the former diplomat and current political scientist and University of Havana professor Carlos Alzugaray whose visa was inexplicably delayed. A number of US academics (including yours truly) and leftist activists wrote e-mails and made calls to Washington to be sure this particular Cuban communist was able to come and meet with us. In the end, he made it in time for his panel and even joined me for an after-party we threw for the Cuban writer Leonardo Padura.

Que viva el dialogo!

How do I know Carlos? Well, I met him in 1999 on one of my earlier trips to Cuba. This was one of the 15 research-related trips I have made to the island on a tourist visa. However, it was the only one where I went to participate in an official academic conference. It's funny, but I wasn't interrogated or told never to return on that trip even though I was attending an academic conference on a tourist visa. It seems that no one minded then.

In fact, back then while I was still in graduate school, I met a lot of "Cuban communists" but most of them I met at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, not in Havana.

How is it possible that I met them when, as you say, zero Cuban communists are allowed into the US. Well, it turns out that many were in fact allowed in during the Clinton years.

Let's see, back then at Tulane or elsewhere in the US I had the privilege of meeting Rafael Hernandez, Roberto Gonzalez (rip), Julio Carranza, Pedro Monreal, Esteban Morales, Alfredo Prieto, Aurelio Alonso, Lillian Llanes, Rufo Caballero (rip), Emilio Ichikawa, Wilfredo Cancio, and Leonardo Padura among others. Granted, some of these Cubans were never, or are no longer, communists, and some of them no longer live in Cuba - but among them are some real, live Cuban communists.

2) Your statement insinuates that I am a political conservative who went to Cuba to meet with politicians or activists of the far right.

Wrong on both counts. I am a social democrat (though we don't have that particular political designation in the US) and I did not go to Cuba to meet anyone of any particular political faction or tendency. Instead, I went to learn what some micro-entrepreneurs think of Raul's economic changes.

I also went to explicitly get beyond the Yoani-centric view of the Cuban blogosphere. I do admire Yoani, consider her a friend, and have defended her in the past from groundless accusations and defamations, but my goal in meeting with bloggers (including her and her husband Reinaldo Escobar) was not to wave a flag for her (she needs little help from me).

Instead, following the advice of Carlos Alzugaray actually (who encouraged me last year to get to know the bloggers from Havana Times and Bloggers Cuba), my purpose was to learn from a wide variety of bloggers themselves about how and why they began to write blogs, how they organize their collective portals, and how they maintain an independent voice in an atmosphere where it is all too common to dismiss those one disagrees with as either "oficialista" (a government mouthpiece) or "mercenaria" (a lackey of imperialism).

3) I will grant you the fact that Cuba has legitimate security concerns from the US (especially given the US embargo and efforts to destabilize the government) but you have to grant me the fact that those concerns are often manipulated and exaggerated for political purposes to stifle legitimate dissent and independent thought and action.

Moreover, as Cuban blogger Alfredo Fernandez has written at Havana Times, it makes no logical sense to conflate "dissidents" with "mercenaries" since the first are presumably motivated by ideas, while the second are only after the money. But I guess politics has a logic all its own.

The US also has very legitimate security concerns, but it is not from Cuban communists.

Additionally, I have a long public record of transparency and fair-mindedness. If Cuba's State Security is as good as everyone says it is, they'd know that they have nothing to fear from me as I am independent, inclusive almost to a fault, and have nothing to hide.

I even meet periodically for lunch and conversation here in NYC with members of Cuba's Mission to the UN - who were well aware of my plans to visit Cuba in April. Perhaps naïvely, I gave them the address and phone number where I'd be staying so the ones now back in Cuba could look me up.  (They had promised to treat me to a mojito my next time in Havana).

I assume they are all diplomats, but am well aware that at least some could also be spies.  Still, we have frank and often friendly conversations over our New York curry.  We often agree about US foreign policy but rarely do so about Cuban domestic policy.

In fact, this past year for Christmas they kindly presented me with a bottle of contraband Havana Club "Anejo Reserva" to keep me warm during these long and brutal NYC winters. I wonder if they will continue to meet with me now that I'm presumably a "persona non grata" in the eyes of their government's security forces.

Or as OLPL so appropriately put it in his blog today: perhaps for them, "Ya no soy El Yuma sino solo un Yanqui."

I repeat, neither Cuban State Security nor the Cuban government has anything to fear from me unless, of course, they fear balanced inquiry and open, honest, and fair dialogue.

At first I thought that I was interrogated and sent packing because I had met with cyber-activists who criticize the government. But now I am wondering if just the opposite isn't true.

It seems from the segurosos' comments in the airport that what most bothered them was that I had reached out with respect and understanding to bloggers such as Elaine Diaz (whom the government has tried to turn into a revolutionary saint) or La Joven Cuba (whom critics of the government have dismissed as "oficialistas"). As Elaine says, let's do away with these celebratory adjectives and dismissive epithets and just call them "bloggers y punto."

Leaders often come to power through a just fight against real enemies. However, those same leaders often resort to inventing new enemies in order to retain their power - perhaps because they don't trust future generations to run things as they have.

As we saw very clearly in the "ciberguerra" video of the "Razones de Cuba" mini-series, the security apparatus prefers to have Cuba's young bloggers isolated and divided - alternately calling one another "oficialista" and "mercenaria" - than coming together with one another in critical, constructive, and respectful dialogue and debate.

If they did that, they just might find that there is more that unites than divides them as young, modern, tech-savvy Cubans searching for their own voices and (cyber)spaces where they can together build the foundations of the Cuba of the future.


  1. However, it should be remembered that most Cubans are not allowed by their own government to travel anywhere. Cuba is one of the very few countries that require its citizens to obtain an exit visa before they may travel outside the country, and exit visas are rarely given. Regretfully, the U.S. also practices a form of this violation of personal liberties by not allowing most Americans to freely travel to Cuba, even with the categories of travel currently permitted. Cuba's restraint on travel by its citizens is clearly more egregious than the U.S., but both are wrong.

  2. Dear Ted,
    What a wonderful reply. I believe in open dialogue, and don’t see why you should not avail yourself the opportunity to travel to Cuba and be more familiar with the main subject of your studies just because others cannot match you in the number of visits to either country. Be their inability due to economic, political or other reasons. You have had that chance and have made the best out of it.
    I believe that every chance you get to travel, you deepen your understanding of a wonderful and interesting culture and history, which results in students like I benefiting from the information passed on by you, not only through your classes, but through your books, blog and persona.
    S. Garcés.

  3. @86cane
    Your statement is in part not true in. Cubans can travel anywhere they want, provided they have the money to pay for their plane ticket, hotel reservations and in many cases such as the Europen destinations; travel insurance. Secondly and most important a visa from the country they intend to visit (The Cuban state has no saying in that part). As is the case with most developing countries, Cuban citizens are not really welcome in the E.U, U.S and most countries around the world they dream of visiting one fine day, that's because of the old communist stigma that comes attached to the Cuban passport "LIKELY TO SEEK ASYLUM."
    By the way, I oppose and denounce that stupid 'Persmiso de Salida' or Carta blanca or whatever the Cuban government throws on top of it all, that makes it even more difficult. But to blame the Cuban government for everything is just not fair. Every poor person in the world has to go through the same in a greater or lesser degree.
    A few years back The USA TODAY conducted a poll... just 11% of Americans have a valid passport, from that 11% just 6 percent travels overseas. Mind you, that was before the economic crisis that started in 2008.

  4. Just Clarifying to Anonymous May 6, 12:49 PM. You seem to contradict yourself when in the first paragraph you say and I quote “Cubans can travel anywhere they want” You omit that they can travel anywhere they want if and only they have “that stupid ‘Permiso de Salida’ o Carta Blanca (Tarjeta Blanca is called, to be more exact) which you mention in your second paragraph stating that you oppose it. Hence Cubans CANNOT travel anywhere THEY want. Being Cuban and having waited for my Tarjeta Blanca for 17 years in order to leave the country I can assure you that 86cane’s statement is true in all its parts. And what has the USA TODAY poll anything to do with “having to have a governmental permission” to travel overseas?

  5. Anonymous 4:22
    No money equals no travel, that's what the whole thing is about. That's what I meant with the USA TODAY poll. As a Cuban you can travel anywhere you want provided that you have money to afford your travels. The permit 'Tarjerta Blanca', thank you, it's still stupid
    ...but that's no the only and main obstacle. The consulate of the country you're visiting has to still grant you a Visa, after and only if you show and prove you can afford your vacation/invitation. How many Cubans can afford a vacation overseas, anywhere. 11 percent? 6 percent? 20 percent? you percent??
    What's your guess?
    That's my point.

  6. Dear anonymous 4:22 you are more more confused than a goat in a desert regarding the inability to travel freely in Cuba.
    Ask Yoani Sanchez how many times the Cuban government have denied her permission to go outside Cuba.
    Ask any Cuban what type of explanation Ricardo Alarcon has given on the inability to travel freely to the Cuban people.
    You have to learn a little more about the repression in Cuba.

  7. The "Tarjeta Blanca" is in fact an exit visa that a Cuban citizen must obtain from the Cuban government before they are allowed to travel outside the country. They are difficult to obtain whether you have the money to travel or not, and if you happen to be someone that the Cuban government doesn't care for, you don't get one, as was recently the case with Yoani. Simply put, the Cuban government decides whether one of its own citizens gets to travel or not.
    By 86cane
    (El Yuma inadvertently erased this comment.)

  8. To Anonymous 8:12 pm:
    Please read again the comment El Yuma said… (By 86cane) 10:35 am.
    Your equation “no money = no travel” can have another variable “money less Tarjeta Blanca = no travel”. Even if you have the money, the visa and everything in order and ready to go, if you don’t get the Tarjeta Blanca you don’t go anywhere. The Tarjeta Blanca is not the only but it IS the main obstacle in order to travel abroad for any Cuban (indeed, ask Yoani Sánchez about it). I know it must be hard for you to comprehend how a totalitarian regime works not having had the experience. I have noticed that for people born and raised in freedom, it is hard to grasp the concept. That is probable why you insist that traveling in Cuba is just a matter of financial means. Cuba you have to live it to believe it…
    To Anonymous May 7, 2:11 am: Notice that the date and time of the comments are shown below the actual comments. I hope your comment about the confused goat in a desert (we say “más perdido que un chivo en un teatro”: more lost than a goat in a theater) didn’t really referred to me and that you were probably referring the comment 8:12 pm. Greetings.

  9. Dear Anonymous and 86Cane,
    Yoani have been playing with fire and she knows it, as know many others that have played outside the rules of the government and have had their permission denied/delay/revoked ...17 years anyone?? ask el Yuma...
    But that's harina de otro costal.
    And I, by the way, think that's unjust and bull crap, but let's be honest with the issue at hand and my initial point;
    Let's say you have the 'Tarjeta Blanca' because the Cuban government don't mind you getting out of Cuba -by the way, more than 90 percent of the cases are given that exit visa with no delays. Then dear friend, what does a 'Cubano de a pie' has to obtain to be able to 'freely travel"?
    Please do not avoid the issue here.
    Tell us please, what a Cuban requires to travel besides the infamous Tarjeta Blanca. And when you do please tell us how many countries in the world are in the same predicament(if you exceed the word limit for the post, continue with a next one)
    Being from Cuba, born there doesn't give one license to misguide others or impose one's views because of your position of having being a long time victim of a system or series of injustices. Once you get out of that crappy situation you have time and the advantage position to look at things more objectively. That's 'un deber de todos nostros los Cubanos', let's stop playing the victims for solidarity and pitty.
    86cane said also,
    exit visas are rarely given'
    Now come on!! why do we have to accept that statement and continue fighting a lie with another lie.
    He/she also said that 'most Cubans are not allowed by their own government to travel anywhere'
    That's very misguiding, and we the Cubans that got out of Cuba know it for a fact. At least the ninety percent of the Cubans I know. (notice I say know, dint say my friends)

  10. And the United States has often denied entry for Cuban academics, politicians and cultural groups based entirely for political reasons. Conferences are held outside of the United States for this reason. But Cuba gets criticized, America rationalized.

  11. Ted,

    Very sharp and objective your post. Thanks!

  12. El Yuma, your answer to the "anonymous" is what they say in Cubano, "le distes una galleta sin mano", and he keeps trying to manipulate the facts. The Cuban tyranny doesn't allow the Cuban people to travel freely, money doesn't have anything to do with it, strict control is the name. Disregard for human rights would be more appropriate.

    Most Americans don't have a passport because they don't want to travel, not because they're not allowed. I travel at least twice a year and I don't have to ask permission to nobody.

  13. And most Cubans don't have a passport because they don't want to travel. No wait, because they can't afford to travel. But absolutely everyone in the United States can afford to travel. Boy, talk about manipulating the facts. Travel is NOT a human right. Housing, health care, food, education are human rights. Travel is a civil right. Facts are a tricky thing, depending on what end of reality you're looking at. I don't agree with having to ask permission to travel -- but that's exactly what Americans have to from their govt if they want to travel to Cuba (unless you're Cuban American). So condemn the Cuban government's stupid rules of the tarjeta blanca -- but do it in the same breath you condemn America's travel restriction and the political manipulation of their policy. And while it is a ridiculous imposition, with little if any justification, there are many Cubans who do travel and get the tarjeta very easily. It is used for political purposes, but nobody plays that game better than the hard-right in Miami when it comes to Cuba.

  14. ...and then came The Cyber-Brigade.
    Some comments fried my bulshitmeter: "Cubans can travel anywhere they want", etc.

    May I point cubans can't even visit their own capital city -havana- without an authorization?

  15. Anonymous May 8, 2011 12:56
    Please, please tell us how many times you've travel to any industrialized country (from the U.S or the E.U or wherever you are) with your Cuban passport and tell us what did they ask you to be able to get on that plane to go to your twice-a-year-dream-vacation. Please...
    Most Americans don't travel abroad because they can not afford a vacation abroad. Most can't fill up their gas tank right now.
    I know, it's the socialist, Kenyan Muslim, terrorist, fascist Barrack Hussein Osama's fault, right?
    It's all about about the money, baby.
    There is no manipulation on any of my statements. Just facts. I am not gonna keep participating in propagating a big lie that us Cubans have been using to play the victim and invoke pity and sympathy. The fact is that 'Tarjeta Blanca' is wrong, and the Cuban gov. uses it for political reasons in CERTAIN cases. In most cases people like myself and the hundreds of Cuban that leave the island daily get that permit easily (Yoani and people that decide to openly fight against the Castros get used by them to intimidate others that's called politics). The rest is about money, money, money that Cubans simply do not have. The causes being the fail economic system, blah, blah, whatever...many, many people of every country of the world are on the exact same boat. Stop the LIE.

  16. polo
    come on, lets not turn this blog into one complete lie after another. cubans can visit havana without authorization, i know friends do it all the time. if you asked a cuban if he needs authorization to visit havana he'd look at you like you're a complete moron, then laugh in your face. Now, moving and living in havana, that's a different story and often you do need authorization. but talk about bulls..t this blog should not allow this level of propaganda. stop it or lose all cred.

  17. I think we Cubans are screwed both ways. On the one hand we don`t get paid enough money to afford to travel, all the travel-related services are in a currency that most cannot access and on top of that we have to ask for permission to get in and out,which represents both an ideological filter an extra cost to our traveling. On the other hand, as the Anonymous says, it is a fact that because our precarious situation, for being from a communist country and from the 3rd world hence our predisposition to 'quedarnos', many countries, specially the United States and Canada do not give us a visa. Traveling is not a human right, but it is the dream of most Cubans, who, like prisoners, yearn for the outside. It is outside that we can taste the freedom and the prosperity we do not have here. Cubans also suffer from deep family separation, which makes traveling even more necessary. I really both stands are right but incomplete. They just need to be put together.
    While it is true that many Cubans get the permiso very easily, it is also true that they have to pay for it. They are also subject to being rejected depending on their political stands and their profession and that IS discrimination. If on top of that the US government pays their own restrictions then we ARE, as I said before screwed.