The Miami Herald
March 17, 2000
U.S., Cuban scholars dodge disputes in Miami debate


 Cuban academics from both sides of the Florida Straits joined Thursday in an
 unusual show of coexistence in Miami, debating everything from Cuban politics to
 Cuban literature in an atmosphere of studied coolness on the opening day of a
 major conference on Latin America.

 Havana's 124-member delegation made up one of the largest Cuban contingents
 ever seen at an academic meeting in the United States, reflecting President
 Clinton's recent efforts to promote ``people-to-people contacts with Cuba while
 maintaining the economic embargo against President Fidel Castro's government.

 Neither Cuba nor the U.S. State Department vetoed the participation of any
 Cubans in the conference of the Latin American Studies Association. ``Some
 visas came late, but all arrived, a LASA official said.

 Fractious disputes are not unknown at such conferences, but the closest thing to
 a controversy to erupt so far came when a surprisingly small group of conference
 members from Havana submitted a resolution that would condemn the U.S.
 embargo against Cuba. It was considered unlikely to pass.

 The absence of fireworks on the first day of the LASA conference served to allay
 early fears that the presence of so many Cubans connected to the government
 through their jobs at state-run universities might draw protest. The LASA
 conference has drawn about 2,800 U.S. and 2,200 foreign university professors,
 many from Latin America, to three downtown hotels.

 From Thursday to Saturday, LASA plans to stage 691 two-hour seminars on
 topics including agriculture, democracy, economic development and the
 environment, said Anthony Maingot, FIU anthropologist and LASA program

 Cuba clearly drew major interest, with 36 seminars devoted to its issues --
 second to Mexico's 69 -- that went from the opening session, ``001: Cuban
 Agriculture 1959-99 to ``684: Church-State Relations in Cuba.

 Media reports last week on the Cuban involvement with the conference sparked a
 controversy in Miami, capital of the Cuban exiles. Miami-Dade authorities tried
 unsuccessfully to block LASA from using a county-owned hall for its opening
 reception Wednesday night, and one conference organizer said he had received
 telephone threats.


 But Cubans from the island and exiles appeared to go out of their way to avoid
 unseemly confrontations in the seminars Thursday, speaking in measured terms
 and in the passive voice -- ``the decision was taken -- to avoid laying blame.

 ``No one can miss the symbolism here, exulted Maingot, who arranged most of
 the panels, after two Havana economists and two exile sociologists joined to
 address one of the touchiest panels: ``Cuba in the '90s. Political, Economic and
 Social Realities.

 But it wasn't all academic blandness at the LASA conference, held every 18

 One Havana academic discreetly criticized Havana's rejection of most private farm
 ownership, at the root of its communist system, saying that agricultural efficiency
 could improve if more land was in private hands.

 Another grew visibly irked when an exile referred to poverty in Cuba, arguing that
 since the government guarantees all the basic needs of its people, Cuba has no
 real poverty, only ``relative poverty.

 Miami Police patroled the halls of the three hotels and checked conference
 registration tags at key hallway intersections, but only three exile protesters had
 turned up as of Thursday afternoon to demonstrate against the presence of
 Cubans from the island.


 LASA, which usually pays the air fare and accommodations of most academics
 selected to address its seminars, said it was paying the expenses for about 70 of
 the Cuban professors and researchers.

 Most of the other Cuban visitors will go on to speaking engagements at U.S. and
 foreign universities that are paying their way.

 A group of 31 Cubans from Havana lost no time Thursday circulating the proposed
 resolution that would condemn the U.S. embargo and the Torricelli and
 Helms-Burton laws as ``interventionist and extraterritorial.

 There was no clear explanation of why the other 93 Cubans at the conference did
 not sign the draft resolution. ``I doubt it means they support the embargo,'' joked a
 Cuban-American historian at the conference.

 The Cubans have won votes on similar resolutions at past conferences by
 jamming the LASA business meetings held at the end of the sessions, when
 most delegates have already begun to return home, a LASA official said.

 Past LASA business meetings have required the presence of only 5 percent of
 registered conference participants to vote on such resolutions. But this year the
 quorum requirement was raised to 10 percent.

                     Copyright 2000 Miami Herald