Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, will be in California this week. Traveling on a U.S. visa to attend a conference of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), she appears to have made it through the same State Department review that denied visas to eleven seemingly less contentious scholars hoping to join the same conference. Some of those turned down are prominent Cubans who have been allowed U.S. visas in the past, including Rafael Hernández, the editor of the Cuban intellectual journal Temas, who has taught at both Harvard and Columbia universities. Forty other Cubans were granted visas with Castro and will join the LASA conference; twenty-five more are under review.
The convoluted issue of travel in the US-Cuba relationship remains a most consuming question for citizens and media alike, and the complications arise on all sides. U.S. citizens, of course, enjoy expanded rights to visit Cuba for “people-to-people” exchanges under Obama administration regulations, but the rules are specific and the agendas pre-approved, which means that opportunities are still quite narrow. Meanwhile, Cuban citizens hoping to travel anywhere abroad are subject to government controls, including application for an expensive exit visa that is out of reach for many — not only because of price, but because of various unspoken rules that result in denial of permission or years of wait. And, as in the case of the eighty Cuban scholars hoping to attend the LASA conference this week, a number of Cubans that proceed through the visa process with the U.S. government find that the ultimate decision seems to be arbitrary, contradicting, and nontransparent.
On the face of it, this latest twist in the travel narrative is as confusing as any other, and media, scholars, and Congressional representatives have wrestled with it over the past few days. Why would the administration allow the daughter of the Cuban President to travel to the United States? Does Castro’s visa allowance represent a change in U.S. policy?
But the issue must be viewed through a different lens. The U.S. line of rhetoric has long been in favor of respecting dissenting opinions, freedom of speech, and open exchange of ideas: it is a constant trope in Washington’s advocacy for change in Cuba. The basis for changed regulations for Americans traveling to Cuba was the value of people-to-people exchanges, and a flow of ideas and culture between the United States and Cuba. Allowing Castro to attend the LASA conference makes sense in that context, particularly because her role in Cuba is more nuanced than her family connections: she may be the daughter of a Castro and a member of the Communist Party (the only political party in Cuba), but as the Director for the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), she is the most prominent and outspoken gay rights activist on the island. Her work has been pivotal in the many reforms that have been enacted on the island in favor of recognition and acceptance of LGBT human rights, and has resulted in pioneering legislation, including allowance for transgendered individuals to receive sex reassignment surgery without charge (as a health care provision), and to change their legal gender. Human rights are Mariela Castro’s passion, and politics is not: she recently openly congratulated U.S. President Barack Obama on his expression of personal support for marriage equality, encouraging the world to take note of his words.
During her visit to Northern California, Castro will speak at San Francisco General Hospital on Cuba’s policies toward transgender people. She will meet with various members of San Francisco’s LGBT community at a meeting Wednesday evening. On Thursday morning, she will lead a panel at the LASA conference.
Mariela Castro’s visa, then, seems to be the part of this story that is consistent with existing policy and rhetoric around human rights, people-to-people exchanges, and largely non-political engagement with Cuba. But consistent application of that policy and rhetoric would have meant granting visas to the other Cuban scholars that had hoped to attend the LASA conference. Castro’s visa has been the focus, but it is not the troubling part of the sequence of events. Why deny visas to scholars that have enjoyed the right to travel to the United States in the past, on the claimed grounds that their presence would be “detrimental to the interests of the United States”? That is the question that remains to be answered.