From the www.monabaker.com archive (legacy material)
The United States has denied visas to all 55 Cuban scholars who had planned to attend an international conference of the Latin American Studies Association next week in Puerto Rico.
According to the association, known as LASA, the Cubans were informed of the decision on February 23, just three weeks before the conference is scheduled to start, on March 15. The association holds an international conference every 18 months.
The decision is consistent with Bush administration decisions that have increasingly tightened restrictions against academic and other contacts between Americans and Cubans. In March 2003, only 60 of 105 Cuban academics were granted U.S. visas to attend LASA's conference in Dallas. In 2004 all 65 Cubans who had planned to attend the group's conference in Las Vegas were informed 10 days before the gathering that they would be barred from entering the United States (The Chronicle, October 1, 2004).
In a letter sent late last month to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, LASA stated: "The U.S. government's decision seriously interferes with LASA's ability to carry out its core mission and represents an egregious affront to academic freedom." Nearly 6,000 academics are expected at the gathering in Puerto Rico.
The Bush administration has also increasingly tightened restrictions on the trips to Cuba organized by U.S. colleges and universities over the last few years.
Milagros Pereyra-Rojas, LASA's executive director, said the group had sought to meet with State Department officials months ago to discuss whether any Cuban academics would be allowed to attend the conference. "We requested a meeting," she said, "but they never got back to us."
Laura L. Tischler, a State Department spokeswoman, said the decision to bar the Cubans was justified since "Cuban academic institutions are state-run and the Cuban government tightly controls the activities of its academics and researchers."
The blanket visa denials were made under a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that allows the government to keep Cuban government employees out of the country. The Bush administration has increasingly applied the law to faculty members at Cuban institutions, since they are civil servants. Cuban scholars regularly attended LASA conferences before 2003.
Asked why the State Department had waited so long to inform the Cuban scholars that they would be barred, even though they had applied for visas months earlier, Ms. Tischler said: "We got back to them in an expedient manner."
LASA said the government has also denied visas to six other scholars who had planned to attend the conference from six other countries. Those scholars were from Bolivia, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, and Uruguay.
The visa denials are causing a debate within LASA about how to respond. The group has already signed contracts to hold its next conference, in 2007, in Boston, said Ms. Pereyra-Rojas. But LASA is giving serious consideration to holding the following gathering, in 2009, in a Latin American country.
LASA's executive board plans to discuss the issue on March 14 in Puerto Rico, a day before the start of the full conference. "Some board members are proposing that we move the conferences permanently outside of the United States until the U.S. changes its policy," said Ms. Pereyra-Rojas.
Others members, however, oppose the idea because of the added travel costs many scholars would incur. About three-quarters of the group's more than 5,000 members reside in the United States.