IU professor: Easing of Cuba travel restrictions good news for scholars

As a native of Germany, Anke Birkenmaier was able to travel to and from Cuba as a scholar of the island’s history and culture. But that work became more difficult after she began her current position at IU Bloomington. So she was encouraged this week to hear that President Barack Obama will take steps toward normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba.

“It’s very exciting, not only for Cubans but for Cuban scholars,” she said. “It’s going to be easier to travel, and I think more Americans will travel there. And I think that’s a great thing.”

Anke Birkenmaier

Anke Birkenmaier

Birkenmaier, an associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, is the author and editor of several books on Cuba. Her academic specialties include Caribbean literature and culture, Latin American literature and anthropology, and media theory.

Although she is a German citizen, Birkenmaier has been restricted by rules that govern U.S. residents’ travel to and exchange with Cuba. Last year, she was invited to lecture at a symposium in Cuba, but she was unable to go because the symposium was sponsored by a government-affiliated institution. And several years ago, she arranged an IU visit by Cuban novelist Pedro Juan Gutierrez. But he declined to come for reasons related to the difficulty of U.S.-Cuban relations.

According to a White House announcement Wednesday, the U.S. will allow travel to and from Cuba for professional research meetings, activities of research and educational institutions, public performances and exhibitions, and a range of other specified purposes.

Birkenmaier understands there will be critics of easing relations with Cuba. “But I think that, overall, it’s going to help a lot with relations between the U.S. and Cuba,” she said. “And I do hope, in the long run, it will encourage a movement toward democracy in Cuba.”

Florida politics and papal diplomacy

Nick Cullather, professor of history, associate dean of the School of Global and International Studies and co-editor of the journal Diplomatic History, said it’s not surprising that Obama made the move late in his term of office, after mid-term elections. U.S. policy toward Cuba, he said, has long been driven by local politics in Florida – a key swing state in national elections – rather than national sentiment toward Cuba’s government.

Nick Cullather

Nick Cullather

In purely political terms, he said, it’s an interesting coincidence that the move came a day after Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has close ties with anti-Castro Cuban immigrants, announced he will explore running for president in 2016. Bush denounced the White House move as a policy misstep that will benefit “the heinous Castro brothers,” Fidel and Raul, rather than the Cuban people.

Cullather said one of the most surprising aspects to the news was the role played by Pope Francis. According to news reports, the pope made personal appeals related to a spy exchange and Cuba’s release of USAID contractor Alan Gross that were critical to the breakthrough. Negotiations took a year and a half and included meetings at the Vatican and in Canada, the New York Times reported.

“It shows the pope is really active,” Cullather said. “It’s kind of spectacular that he pulled this off.”

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