Visas Denied to Scholars to Attend Same Conference as Castro's Daughter

Raúl Castro’s daughter Mariela received a visa to attend a conference of scholars next week, but several less prominent academics have been denied, according to conference organizers.

While the State Department’s approval of Mariela Castro’s travel request appeared to signal a potential opening in U.S.-Cuban relations, the refusal to allow travel permission for academics, raises questions about the way the Obama administration is handling Cuban visa requests.

The State Department denied seven visa requests for Cuban academics to attend the Latin American Studies Association’s conference next week in San Francisco, according to Ted Henken, a professor at the City Univeristy of New York who studies Cuba and is an active member of LASA’s Cuba section.

More visas are still pending and may be denied, Henken added.

Among the academics whose visas were denied are scholars who have visited the United States in the past.

Carlos Alzugaray taught for two months at Queens College in New York City as a visiting professor and has participated in U.S. conferences in the past, according to professor Mauricio Font, who directs the Bildner Center on Western Hemisphere Studies at the City University of New York. 

It is not clear why the academics’ visas were denied. The number of visas approved for cultural exchanges changes depending on who holds the U.S. presidency, and presidents do not always explain their positions publicly.

For Cubans, requesting travel to the United States for cultural exchanges is a complicated and often arbitrary process that can drag on for months. Because Cuba is one of four countries on the State Department’s “State Sponsors of Terror” list, Cuban visas must pass through an additional security clearance. 

Of the roughly 80 Cubans who applied to attend the San Francisco conference, 11 were denied and 25 are being reviewed, the Washington Post reported.

A letter obtained by the Post said a visit from one academic whose visa was denied, Soraya Castro Marino, would be “deterimental to the interests of the United States.” The Post reports that the other rejected academics received the same letter.

For the Latin American Studies Association, or LASA, Cuban delegations have long been a point of contention with the U.S. government.

When the State Department denied visas to the Cuban conference delegation during the George W. Bush years, LASA voted to hold its conferences outside of the United States to avoid the problem.

The Obama administration relaxed those restrictions, prompting LASA to allow its conferences in the United States once more.

“Cubans should be able to travel freely without having to pass an ideological test,” said Ted Henken, a professor at the City University of New York who studies Cuba. “As a free country, we should set the example. We should debate and engage them.”