This year, around 250 Cuban scholars will participate in the 34th Latin American Studies Association International Congress, taking place from May 27 to May 30 in New York. This is a new record in the history of this event. There will be 97 panels completely dedicated to Cuba, as well as another 120 in which there will be at least one presentation about Cuban topics.
This is a major achievement considering that between 2007 and 2012 LASA had to hold its conferences outside of the U.S. because in two consecutive congresses, 2004 and 2006, the Bush administration had denied visas to all of the Cuban academics approved by the organization’s rigorous committees. Without doubt, the latest developments reflect the growing process of normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States.
However, young Cuban scholars on the island are still confronted with a familiar dilemma: 50 of them didn’t receive visas from the consular officials at U.S. embassy in Havana.
One of the scholars who was invited to LASA and whose visa was denied was Dmitri Prieto-Samsónov, an anthropologist who has published extensively about environmental issues, economic and political reform and the historical memory of the revolutions. He’s also a member of Observatorio Crítico, an autonomous organization whose associates gather to discuss relevant problems of Cuba’s everyday life through the lens of a sophisticated theoretical background. His visa was apparently rejected because U.S. authorities assume he won’t leave after entering the country.
“It’s unfair that the American law presumes that practically everyone who lives outside the U.S. has the desire to emigrate to that country,” explains Prieto-Samsónov. “ The elements that — according to the bureaucrats — would supposedly prove that whoever applies for a visa does not want to emigrate are overtly discriminatory, as they exclude certain minorities. For example, I was asked if I’m married and if I have kids. Best-case scenario, such “proofs” are absolutely circumstantial. Logically, they function as the perfect exclusionary criteria in the case of Cuba, a country with a high number of divorcees. They are also useful to exclude members of the LGBTI Cuban community. It’s really disappointing. In my case, my political commitments and research topics are here, in Cuba.”
Even though this scenario was somewhat likely, given the negative history of issuing visas to Cubans invited to this congress, many took the chance this year to apply for a visa, buoyed by the hope that in this moment of normalization the dynamics of the relation between both nations must be different. The opening of embassies in respective countries nurtured the hope that the investment of $160 for the visa application fee — a fortune in Cuba — would be worth it.
So, how does one explain that the authorities in this country, yet again, allow themselves the luxury of blocking one of the most advantageous avenues for an exchange that contributes to the conformity of the ideal of “normalcy” by denying the participation of a significant number of Cubans in the Congress hosted by the premier professional association for the study of Latin America?
According to Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat and academic who is a member of the board of the Cuba Section of LASA, “this is particularly regrettable in the cases of young researchers who don’t have the academic credentials that seasoned scholars have and who are well known by the embassy officials in Havana.”
The U.S. State Department does not publicly discuss its reasons for denying visas. But according to Alzugaray, the 50 denials cited Section 214(b) of the Immigration and Naturalization Law of 1952, which allows consular officials in the embassy to deny visas based on the suspicion that applicants are potential immigrants that are using the LASA Congress to travel to the United States, in order to stay. This regulation contradicts an important legal principle: the presumption of innocence until otherwise proven guilty. In the case of Cuba, the Cuban Adjustment Act – an American law that allows Cubans to apply for a status of permanent residency after living in the U.S. for one year – heightens this possibility because the presumption of culpability (the intent of illegal emigration) is augmented, even though it does not prove it.
“Information has been compiled about the visa interviews of these young researchers and of many more that have been denied without them (the U.S. officials) even listening to their explanations about their reasons to remain in Cuba and why they have no intention whatsoever of emigrating.
“The visas are approved or denied by the immigration officials. There is reasonable doubt that in many cases they don’t investigate much. There are people who have taken important documents like the identifications of their youngest children who they wouldn’t ever abandon, or photocopies of the deeds of private houses and the officials don’t check them or even accept them,” added Alzugaray.
This creates the suspicion that immigration officials are making arbitrary and unilateral decisions without even looking in to the particularities of each case and, without consulting the corresponding U.S. institutions.
“Even though visas are approved prima facie, there also exists the possibility that the applicant has to submit to what the officials describe as ‘an administrative process’ which, as they will confirm, doesn’t depend on them. In the past, many visas were denied after this process, using section 212 (f) as an excuse. There have even been periods in which the rejection has been extended to all the Cuban participants living on the island: LASA Congresses in Las Vegas and Puerto Rico in 2004 and 2006, respectively,” stated Alzugaray.
According to the former diplomat, this year few visa denials were based on Section 212 (f), which can be used to prohibit people from entering the U.S. for political reasons. The U.S. has rejected member of the Communist Party from visiting the country to attend the LASA congress in the past. But this year, well-known scholars who are part of Cuba’s socialist cultural establishment and that had been previously denied visas, such as Rafael Hernández, Soraya Castro, Esteban Morales and Milagros Martínez, will be able to participate in the Congress this time.
Alzugaray insisted that this year there has been a fluid dialogue with the embassy and in particular, with its Charge d’Affaires, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who has answered all the questions with great transparency and promptness. But, according to the former Cuban diplomat, there isn’t much that the Chief of the Mission in Havana can do because the internal regulations of the system give full power to the official at the desk. Neither the ambassador nor any other superior officer can interfere with his or her decision.
The process, however, offers little transparency and the decision is not appealable. The only alternative offered to the applicant is to reapply for the visa, which will set him/her back another $160.
Alzugaray assures that 260 visas were authorized, which is 50 percent more than last year and guarantees that the Cuban delegation in this Congress will be the biggest since scholars from the island began to participate. Nonetheless, the 50 rejections still reflect the ongoing challenges of breaking away from a dysfunctional history of mutual mistrust.
Alzugaray, who had been denied a visa five times before, said the interviews should be more transparent and in depth. “The officials should examine the documents that the applicants present and there should be an appeal process,” Alzugaray said. This is something that both parties should work on. Both governments have declared that they are interested in strengthening the links between the citizens of both societies. Academic exchanges are an important part of that. Neither Washington nor Havana has a perfect record on this issue.”
María Isabel Alfonso, Huffpost Latino Voices
June 1, 2016
Benjamin Willis contributed to this article and its translation