The Latin American Studies Association is one of the most important academic forums for Latin American scholars around the world. An assembly of a broad representation of scholars from many disciplines with interests in Latin America.
On the occasion of the 2021 Virtual Conference, Professor Guillermina De Ferrari started a petition to raise the concerns among scholars with an interest in Cuba to the Executive Council of the Latin American Studies Association. The statement demanded LASA call on the Cuban government for their abuse against the human rights of artists, intellectuals, and activists, among them Tania Bruguera, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Luis Robles, and the San Isidro Movement.
At the end of the Conference, the Executive Council released a statement that failed to address the initial demand for support against the Cuban government’s continued abuses and introduced additional controversial issues, such as the decades-long sanctions and the non-intervention principles, avoiding the substance of the appeal. The failure to respond to a legitimate claim while representing a vulnerable community that has been left without a voice provoked an immediate backlash from the scholars that had promoted the call. Additional endorsements were received from other members of LASA voicing their disbelief for such a mild response to a critical situation affecting members of a community that LASA had historically vowed to protect. The debate prompted other academic institutions to share their concerns about the escalation of human rights abuses in Cuba, in stark contrast with LASA’s pronouncement.
However, this controversy has not been limited to the spaces of the LASA community. There have been discussions among other groups in support of a stronger standing against the human rights abuses in Cuba. At the same time, the debate has prompted responses in support of the Cuban government, and against LASA for meddling in what they consider are internal affairs of the island. The discussion has been amplified by the criticism of institutions that have recognized the human rights violations coming from pro-government scholars with whom they have had a collaborative relationship. There have also been statements that carefully point to the inconvenience of LASA confronting the Cuban regime, in an attempt to preserve a safe space for those that prefer to avoid a confrontation with Havana. This perspective only adds to a narrative among those supporting the regime in Cuba that it is inadmissible to question the Cuban regime, and its supporters based on their status as a legitimate and popular political process.
What becomes falsifiable is precisely the nature of legitimate and popular in an asymmetrical political contest where the competing identities, the regime, and the social movements, are not operating from within the same set of principles. This is not an ideological confrontation, it is an existential clash where those opposing the Cuban regime are demanding their recognition as individuals with rights, as opposed to the Cuban government’s refusal to acknowledge their political identity, and therefore, their right to exist and exercise full citizenship.
This needs to be called to attention. An academic forum with a trajectory built on its mission “to foster intellectual discussion, research, and teaching on Latin America, the Caribbean, and its people throughout the Americas, promote the interests of its diverse membership and encourage civic engagement through network building and public debate.” cannot remain silent when challenged by the wrongdoing of those who have previously received its staunch support.
Surprisingly, one of the arguments refers to meddling in internal affairs, contradicting decisions made by LASA regarding other countries. We can recall on a previous occasion, in 2017, LASA decided to authorize a fact-finding delegation entrusted with investigating the impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff. This could easily be considered an internal affair, allegedly the reason to reject LASA Executive Council’s statement, yet it was set up to “determine whether the charges against President Rousseff meet the constitutional standard for impeachment, whether they are credible, and generally whether the Brazilian Congress has followed appropriate standards of due process.”
In a statement issued in January of 2019, addressing the threats against academic freedom, the Executive Council publicly shared concerns about LASA’s members: [who] “have suffered or are currently experiencing different forms of harassment, threats and attacks to their physical integrity and personal security. This has affected scholars living and working throughout the region, including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, and Uruguay.” Unfortunately, Cuban and Venezuelan scholars are missing from a list of countries facing exactly what Professor De Ferrari’s petition was calling to attention.
LASA has not only issued broad statements in support of academic freedom, but it has also addressed the threats in specific country cases, like the one regarding academic freedom in Paraguay where the Executive Council declared that: “Threatening academic institutions and researchers with legal actions for their legitimate activities constitutes a clear case of intimidation and an attempt to curtail academic freedom. It is also a potent and unacceptable threat to scholars who may want to do research on this or similar issues in the future.”
This is the stance that many scholars who signed the petition were expecting from the Executive Council when not only the conditions previously described have deteriorated but also involved other members of LASA. Following the controversy of the response, members of LASA and other institutions were falsely accused of being part of an effort to undermine the Cuban regime. During a prime time tv show in Cuba, a member of LASA, Armando Chaguaceda; Tania Bruguera, from INSTAR, the Cuba Program of Colombian Universidad Sergio Arboleda, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and the 27N movement, among others, were exposed in a broadcast summary judgment as guilty of plotting against the Cuban regime. This is exactly what the Executive Council had denounced in their May 2021 Paraguay statement, which is why the community of scholars reached out to them in the first place but being left with no other recourse, has decided to leave LASA.
There is a community of academics within LASA, made not only of Cubans but also Venezuelans, Mexicans, and Nicaraguans, among others, that expects its leadership to give equal treatment to the issues that arise for their concern. There has been a clear unbalance when it comes to the institution’s fulfillment of the said mission, and it has affected an important part of its members. This is not an ideological confrontation, this is about principles, and those who are part of LASA expect to see these principles applied to all members regardless of ideological preferences.