May 20, 2012

NO ONE IS MUCH surprised when the Cuban government, which lives in mortal fear of the free flow of ideas, denies travel visas to homegrown dissidents. But when the United States bars Cuban scholars from attending a four-day academic conference in California, it lowers itself to the level of the regime in Havana and demeans American values.

That’s what the State Department has done ahead of the 30th Conference of the Latin American Studies Association, to be held this week in San Francisco. Of the 2,000 or so conferees expected from Latin America, 11 Cubans have been singled out and denied visas to enter the United States. (Another 60 have been accepted, and six are still being reviewed.)

The reasons for the rejections are mysterious and mystifying. Of the 11, many are well known and internationally respected academics with long-standing ties to top American scholars. One is a former ambassador to the European Union.

Does the United States feel threatened by Milagros Martinez, vice rector of the University of Havana, who has relentlessly pushed scholarly exchanges with American universities? By Soraya Castro Marino, a serious commentator on U.S.- Cuban relations? By Rafael Hernandez, a scholar and editor who has taught at Harvard and Columbia universities?

Those and others among the Cuban refuseniks are independent thinkers who have forced discussions that the Castro regime would prefer not to have.

“They’re just the kind of people you would not want to deny a visa to,” John H. Coatsworth, provost at Columbia University and a Latin America scholar, told us. “It’s bizarre.”

The rejections send a message that a timorous Washington is somehow afraid of competing points of view from academics in a poor island nation with a shrinking population and an economy about the size of Arkansas’. It’s a message that conveys weakness, not strength.

So does the absurd outcry from Cuban American politicians, including members of Congress, bent out of shape that a visa was granted to Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and an advocate of gay and transgender rights. What are they so frightened of?

The State Department’s form letters to the rejected applicants said that their presence would be “detrimental” to American interests. A spokesperson, without offering any further explanation, fell back on boilerplate legalities which, in an almost Soviet twist, translated as: Rejected Because of the Law. Never mind that the 11 have traveled — quite legally — to the United States before.

On several occasions the George W. Bush administration issued blanket denials to dozens of Cuban scholars who tried to attend the conference. That forced the sponsors to shift three straight conferences out of the United States, to Canada and Brazil.

That was a disgraceful commentary on America’s tolerance and constitutional protections. Free speech is meant to protect not only the speakers but also those who want to listen to them.