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On Academic Exchanges: A Dialogue with Ted Henken

academic exchanges, By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, Opinion No Comments »

Ted published today a follow up to our dialogue on academic exchanges in The Havana Note.  (You can read our early exchange, in an earlier post here “Amistad, Academia and U.S. Travel Policies“, and from there go to his initial piece in El Yuma). Since The Havana Note does not seem to permit comments (or I have not been able to find how), I am linking that piece here.

Research and Academic Exchange in Cuba Is Challenging (but Possible), by Ted Henken.

Nothing to object there. If anything, I would add one more entity to the list of culprits that obstruct academic research in Cuba, and that is the State of Florida. In 2006, the state of Florida banned the use of both public and private funds for research in Cuba. In 2008, a federal judge stroke down the part of the law that concerned private funds. To my knowledge, the ban is still in place in regards to public monies.

Now the state (or rather, its flagship university) is taking on Haiti. Recently, the newsletter of the American Association of University Professors denounced the case of two journalism students at the University of Florida who are penalized for their research in Haiti. I quote:

When the earthquake devastated Haiti in January, the two students were in a small
town close to the epicenter, shooting footage for their master’s thesis. Both were
evacuated from Haiti but vowed to return to complete their filming. They did so
later using private, non-university funds.
In the interim, however, the university had put in place a ban on “UF-sanctioned,
-sponsored, or -approved trips” to Haiti for students. Bougher and Safiullin were
told that their final thesis submission could not include any post-earthquake
footage because they had defied university rules in traveling to Haiti after the
university’s ban.

Public Academics and the Cuba-vs-Exile Question

By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, exile, Opinion 5 Comments »

Celia Cruz as Lady in White. Miami, Calle Ocho, 3/25/2010. Courtesy and ©  Marta Ramos

When it comes to Cuba, few academics dare to issue opinions. We complain about the continued irrelevance of intellectuals within U.S. society and call for the need to encourage critical thinking within the university. Yet few issue informed opinions on U.S. Cuban politics.  The field is extremely polarized between those academics who refuse to publicly acknowledge the death of the revolutionary utopia and who focus their critical energy on the ill policies of the U.S. government, and those -generally de-legitimized- whose exiled agendas guide their scholarship. In between there is a silent mass, among them the anthropologists, who are uncomfortable expressing an opinion that will align them with either camp. Anthropologists study other cultures and societies yet their ultimate goal is to criticize their own and not that of others, always respectful (fearful?) of foreign sovereignties.

There are some exceptions (as in this very blog concerning U.S. Cuba  travel policies), most often among non-anthropologists, even though they sharply separate opinion from scholarship. Our colleague Ted Henken is one. He does not shy away from informing his political opinion with his academic knowledge in his blog El Yuma. Nor does Isabel Alfonso, a professor at St. Joseph’s college in New York.    She recently wrote an essay entitled “The Stains of a March” critiquing the goals behind the March 25th march that took place in Miami under the auspices of Emilio and Gloria Estefan in support of Cuba’s political prisoners. Between fifty and one hundred thousand people attended the march, and in the name of unity, the goals overshadowed the means. She analyzed the organization of the march and denounced its secondary agenda:

“As a symbolic gesture, far from facilitating the hatching of a mature exile, able to tell apart lights from shadows, the march inscribes us once again in a history of accomplice silences before acts of violence that surpass the abuse against the Damas, such as the terrorist acts committed by Posada Carriles or the fifty-year long embargo against the island. Politically, the balance results in manipulation on both sides.  Washington lobbyists might use the march to create momentum and freeze the dialogue. Less travel, fewer academic exchanges, fewer points of negotiation….”

The essay was picked up by two very different web publications: the exile journal Encuentro en la Red (based in Madrid), and the official page of Cuba’s Union of Artists and Writers (UNEAC). Because this collusion between two normally ideologically-opposed forums is unprecedented, the essay deserves careful reading.  You can choose where to read it in its entirety, according to your own preference:

“Las Manchas de una Marcha”, Cuba Encuentro, March 31, 2010

“Las Manchas de una Marcha”. UNEAC webpage, April 2, 2010

For background, you can watch this short report on the march by The Miami Herald:

About Amistad, Academia and U.S. Cuban travel policies

academic exchanges, By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, Licensing & visas, News and Views, Opinion, travel 4 Comments »

ENCASA‘s Ruben Rumbaut informs us of their involvement with the Amistad Project: The Amistad slave ship replica is on its way to Cuba. With permission from both the Cuban and the U.S. governments, it will dock in Matanzas on the 22nd to visit the Slavery Museum there, then sail to Havana for the celebration of the U.N.’s Day of Remembrance for the Victims of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The ship will stay in Havana for a week. Here is the  LINK to the press release.

This past week has been momentous in terms of support for increased cultural and academic exchanges with Cuba. An opinion piece that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education a few days ago argued for a modification in U.S. Cuban policy to allow for lifting restrictions (severely worsened by the Bush administration), so that U.S. academics can conduct research in Cuba without U.S. government interference. On the other side of the academic aisle, so to speak, others have argued that without a political opening in Cuba, these pro-travel academics are only playing into Cuba’s window dressing game, for real research is impossible while the Cuban government does not allow U.S. scholars’ unrestricted access to research sites. Their position is that to press for academic exchanges in the U.S. without simultaneously demanding change in Cuba is hypocritical. Our CUNY colleague and El Yuma blogger Ted Henken has taken issue with this counter argument (made mostly by, in turn, a colleague of his, economist Jorge Sanguinetty). According to Ted Henken, it is possible to do real research in Cuba even if one does not have proper research authorization from the Cuban government. Furthermore, some research is better than no research, and students will still benefit from the opportunity.

While I agree with Ted and with the spirit of the Chronicle’s letter on the need for a radical change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, I would also like a situation in which research would be facilitated also on the Cuban end. A tourist visa is not enough. Not all research projects are created equal. Some of them are impossible to carry out without explicit on-site permission and facilitation (I am aware that this is not unique to Cuba; there are plenty of research arenas in the United States that are off limits to foreign, and at times also native, scholars).  To wit: Without a proper research affiliation in Cuba, there are archives, survey populations and marine reefs, among many other possibilities, that are off limits.  While some might be able to carry out their investigation without any extravagant need for additional support and collaboration (say someone conducting research on Cuban street slang), others (say someone wishing to study the garbage disposal system and its ecological impact) might have a harder time with only a tourist visa and no institutional support. Furthermore, ethnographic research (which is after all the inspiration for this blog project) requires a lengthy stay. I am of the old fashioned opinion that proper ethnographic fieldwork cannot be bypassed and substituted by a few short trips; much less if such research is the basis of a dissertation-type project.  Since the opening of academic relations in the 1990s,  such research has typically been conducted under a student visa; which by its very definition is not fit for a post-graduate scholar. And only very exceptionally have post-graduate scholars been able to obtain a research visa: the process is long and cumbersome, to say the least. Their alternative has been, precisely, short trips as tourists; trips that in a couple of unfortunate cases had no happy ending precisely because the person overstepped the boundaries set by the tourist visa.

Henken seems to be advocating complete freedom of research, and I do agree in principle with that position, but in a world of international states and borders it is unfortunately a utopia.  In the end it comes down to whether the ends justify the means. For as long as a specific research or student visa is required by the Cuban government as a prerequisite to conduct bona fide academic research on the island, as responsible university professors we cannot advocate the breaking of that country’s laws.  I, for one, would very much like to see U.S. roadblocks disappear, and subsequently, I would also like to see the parallel Cuban bureaucratic process  eased.  Let’s hope that the Amistad journey will stand as a symbol not only of the past but also of the future.

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