From the International column of the October 2009 issue of Perspectives on History
The Cuban Revolution at 50: Taking the Measure at a Conference in Canada
Louis A. Pérez Jr, October 2009
The story is told that some weeks after the triumph of the Cuban revolution, Ernest Hemingway and a friend sat in a hotel bar in Havana when Fidel Castro arrived with an entourage of staff and security personnel. Recognizing Hemingway, Castro dispatched an aide to invite the novelist to join him at his table. Hemingway waved off the invitation. The friend was taken aback by Hemingway’s peremptory spurning of Castro’s attention, and asked why. Hemingway responded: “I’m an expert on revolutions. In six months, maybe a year, he’ll be gone, and I’ll still be here. I just don’t want to get involved.”
Not for the last time did an American misjudge the staying power of Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. Indeed, predictions of the imminent demise of the Cuban revolution developed early into a staple of the American conventional wisdom on Cuba. The Cuban revolution was not expected to survive the denial of U.S. markets in the 1960s, or survive the embargo during the 1970s, or survive the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, or survive the Torricelli Law (1992) and the Helms-Burton Law (1996). And surely, the argument runs, the Cuban revolution would not survive the passing of Fidel Castro from power.
Historians will long ponder the meaning of the Cuban revolution. They will be drawn to the study of the revolution as a phenomenon shaped by forces set in motion a century earlier, a phenomenon that above all responded to the overriding logic of Cuban historical processes. Historians will also puzzle over the utter inability of American political leaders to engage the subject of relations with Cuba as a matter of rational policy deliberations. The removal of the Cuban government—encoded in the more familiar policy euphemism “to bring democracy to Cuba”—has assumed fully the proportions of an American policy pathology. It has taxed the ingenuity of three different generations of American presidents. Scores of presidential candidates, in party primaries and national elections alike, have eagerly offered plans designed to hasten the demise of the Cuban government. Eleven successive presidential administrations have at one time or another resorted to armed invasion and attempted assassination, sanctions, sabotage, and subversion, and variously applied material pressure and moral suasion in efforts to effect “regime change” in Havana. Fifty years have passed and, notwithstanding all the American efforts, the comandantes who led the revolution against Fulgencio Batista still govern Cuba.
The approach of the half-century mark suggested an appropriate occasion for a conference on the Cuban revolution, to take measure of what must be considered one of the transcendental events of 20th-century Latin America, of a process of momentous national consequences and far-reaching international repercussions. However, to contemplate organizing a conference on the Cuban revolution, even in the best of times, was to take on a daunting project. In fact, the years of President George W. Bush were the worst of times. To organize a conference on the Cuban revolution without the participation of scholars from Cuba was unthinkable; to plan a conference in the United States with the participation of scholars from Cuba was unrealistic. Pursuant to Presidential Proclamation 5377 of 1985, entry into the United States of “officers or employees of the Government of Cuba or the Communist Party of Cuba”—which included almost all Cuban scholars, researchers, and academics—was “suspended.” The default position of the Bush administration was to deny outright visas to Cubans. Forty-five of the 105 Cuban scholars invited to the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) Congress in Dallas in 2003 were barred from entering the United States. At LASA–Las Vegas in 2004, all 60 invited Cuban scholars were denied entry; the 58 Cubans invited to LASA–San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2006, were likewise all denied entry visas. The Cuban presence at LASA, the Department of State indicated, pursuant to Proclamation 5377, was deemed “detrimental to the interests of the United States.”
In March 2006, the LASA Executive Council drafted a formal protest of Washington’s systematic denial of visas to Cuban scholars, and resolved: “As long as the United States government’s current visa policy with regard to our Latin American colleagues persists, we can no longer, in good conscience, hold our Congress inside the United States.” The LASA membership voted to relocate the 2007 Congress—originally planned for Boston—to a site outside the United States, and thereby enable the participation of colleagues from Cuba. Montreal was chosen. It was at the LASA meeting in Montreal in 2007 that scholars from Cuba, Canada, and the United States began to plan a conference to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution—in a site outside the United States.
In May 2009, an estimated 400 scholars, researchers, writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians, and members of the public at large registered for the conference, “Measure of a Revolution: Cuba, 1959-2009.” Hosted by Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and cosponsored by the University of Havana, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Boston University, participants included scholars from Cuba, Canada, the United States, and Europe, representing a variety of disciplines, diverse methodological approaches, and engaged in research on a wide range of subjects.
The conference provided the occasion to take stock of the Cuban revolution, to reflect on its objectives and examine its achievements, to consider its prospects and contemplate its legacy, but most of all to foster dialogue and promote collaborative engagement among scholars of Cuba. Rare indeed have been the opportunities during the last 50 years for scholars of Cuba—from the island and outside—to assemble in such numbers to exchange views, share information, and engage one another in discussion and debate.
Organized around nearly 50 panels, the Kingston conference included several plenary sessions and a number of workshops and round-table sessions. The program also included poetry readings, musical performances, dance programs, films, poster exhibits, and a book fair. Panelists and speakers addressed a variety of subjects, ranging from matters of race, gender, and sexuality to youth culture and aging; from architecture, public housing, and urban planning to the environment and sustainable development; issues related to public health, civil society, and human rights; the economy in its multiple facets, including agriculture, sugar production, foreign investment, and trade; migration, education, and the arts.
The subject of Cuba-U.S. relations, in all its multiple dimensions, past and present, insinuated itself at almost every point during the three-day conference: in formal panel presentations and in casual conversation, in round-table discussions and official plenary speeches. Discussions ranged from matters of past relations to the prospects of future policy, and of course speculation what—if anything—the emergence of new political leadership in Havana and in Washington portended. Few were optimistic.
Those who could not attend the conference will also have a chance to get an impressionistic sense of the multifaceted sessions because plans have been made to publish some of the conference papers in a special issue of the journal, Cuban Studies, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
All who participated and were present at Kingston will, of course, be long indebted to the faculty, administrators, staff, and students of Queen’s University for their gracious hospitality and the flawless efficiency with which the conference was organized. For scholars and students of Cuba the conference will in time fully rise to the level of folkloric proportions. We can only hope to reciprocate Canadian hospitality in the not too distant future with an equally all-inclusive conference—in a site inside the United States.
—Louis A. Pérez, Jr. is the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History and director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His most recent book is Cuba in the American Imagination (2008).