HAVANA – The political hubbub over Washington's decision to grant a visa to the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro has eclipsed the fact the State Department simultaneously denied nearly a dozen other prominent Cubans permits to attend an academic conference in California, among them some of the island's most independent and open-minded scholars.
They include academics with a history of collaborating with American researchers, distinguished visiting professors who took up temporary posts at universities like Harvard and Columbia, and some of the most outspoken voices for change on the island, Cuba watchers and analysts said Friday.
The ruling has many scratching their heads.
"It's just bizarre," said Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA, an independent think tank. "I have trouble believing that all of these people who have been up here working at the most prestigious universities in the United States have gone from one day to the next to being a security threat."
"These are the people we as a country should want to be talking to," Olson added.
The State Department does not talk about individual visa cases as a matter of policy, but spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Friday that 77 Cubans had applied to attend the Latin American Studies Association, or LASA, conference in San Francisco next week. Of those, 60 were approved, 11 were rejected and six are still pending.
Nuland said denials happen for numerous reasons including security concerns or other questions about applicants' reasons for traveling.
"For these 60 who were issued ... we thought that if they were applying to come to this congress they were appropriate and legitimate participants in the congress, and we didn't have any reason to have concerns about how they would conduct themselves in the United States or any security concerns," Nuland said.
One of those denied a visa is Carlos Alzugaray, a longtime diplomat and professor who has publicly recommended Raul Castro's government deepen nascent free-market economic reforms, called for changes to restrictive travel rules and even urged a change of "mentality" within the Communist Party.
Another is Rafael Hernandez, a political scientist and editor of the magazine Temas, considered one of the most independent in Cuba for its non-ideological bent and varied content from across the political spectrum. Just last fall, he was a visiting professor at Columbia, he told The Associated Press.
"In this group there's not one of us who does not defend dialogue and exchange with the United States," Hernandez said.
President Barack Obama has made increased academic, cultural and people-to-people exchanges a cornerstone of his Cuba policy, and such trips have greatly increased in recent years.
Yet on the LASA visas, the White House has taken fire from both sides.
Cuban-American politicians were irate this week when news broke that among those granted visas were Mariela Castro, the island's most prominent gay rights advocate, who is to chair a panel at the San Francisco conference, and Eusebio Leal, a historian who has spearheaded the renovation of Old Havana and sits on the powerful Communist Party Central Committee. He spoke at the Brookings Institute in Washington on Friday.
"The administration's appalling decision to allow regime agents into the U.S. directly contradicts Congressional intent and longstanding U.S. foreign policy," wrote Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and David Rivera of Florida, along with Albio Sires of New Jersey in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Hernandez, the magazine editor, said the visa decisions seemed arbitrary and speculated that the White House was mixing in some denials with the majority that were approved due to political pressure.
"They have denied visas to several of us who frequently travel to the United States," Hernandez said. "That is the cost, I suppose, that they are paying to bring in the rest. They have to throw a piece of meat to (Cuban American hardline politicians) ... because they gave a visa to Mariela and Eusebio."
Associated Press writers Andrea Rodriguez in Havana and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
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