This is a story about traveling Cubans — one group to Haiti, the other (or so they hoped) to the United States.

Over 500 Cuban doctors have been working in Haiti, helping the people of that nation overcome the devastating effects of Tropical Storm Jeanne. Many were there prior to the storm as part of a long-term program of medical assistance originally set up by deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the Cuban government.

Other Cuban health workers were vacationing in Cuba when news came about the approaching storm. Voluntarily, they cut their vacations short and returned to their posts, volunteering for service in Haiti. In the stricken Haitian city of Gonaives, 64 Cuban medical workers have cared for over 12,000 patients since Sept. 25.

The other part of the story is about meanness. The U.S. State Department announced Sept. 29 that it was denying visas to 65 Cuban scholars planning to attend the Oct. 7-10 Congress of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) in Las Vegas. The action was justified by a Reagan-era executive order stipulating that “employees of the Cuban government and/or members of the Cuban Communist Party” are not to receive U.S. visas. Since all universities in Cuba are public, not private, the Cuban scholars by this reasoning were considered “employees of the Cuban government.”

For almost a year, the State Department had repeatedly assured LASA organizers that the visas would be granted. The scholars became aware of the bad news just before their flight was to leave Havana. Many of them had planned to make academic presentations elsewhere in the U.S. after the conference.

LASA is a 5,000-member, multidisciplinary organization. Its congress is the world’s leading forum for academic discussion on Latin America and the Caribbean. Cuban scholars have participated for 25 years; 100 of them attended last year. Never before has an entire delegation been rejected. The Cuban poets, sociologists, art historians and economists all were to have presented papers. LASA had to cancel 45 out of 600 scheduled sessions.

LASA, the American Political Science Association, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, and Reps. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) condemned the State Department action as a violation of intellectual freedom. Three Harvard professors attending the LASA congress protested the decision by staging a session on “Academic Freedom and Scholarly Exchange with Cuba.” There were 65 empty seats in the hall, one for each of the excluded Cubans.

At a Sept. 30 press conference, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, “We just felt it wasn’t appropriate for this many Cuban government officials, ‘academics,’ to come to a conference to spout the party line.”

John H. Coatsworth, director of Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, flatly rejected Boucher’s claims. “I can tell you with a certainty that that’s a lie. … They [the Cuban academics] are honest, they’re courageous, they do superb work. … This policy of restricting people-to-people contacts only benefits those who would benefit from violent change instead of a peaceful transition.”

The center will soon publish “The Cuban Economy at the Start of the 21st Century,” co-authored by five of the rejected scholars, one of them a visiting scholar at Harvard last fall.

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