“Whether or not the political and economic embargo is ended in the near future, the development of some mechanisms for normalizing contact between United States and Cuban social scientists would benefit both scientific communities.” Louis Goodman, 1976.

Read the full assessment of the social sciences in Cuba by Louis Goodman here.

In 1996, representatives of the MacArthur Foundation and the Christopher Reynolds Foundation (CRF) approached the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) and the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) with the idea of establishing a blue ribbon committee of scholars from the United States and Cuba, whose mandate would be to catalyze collaboration between la intelectualidad académica in both countries. Stan Katz was at the time concluding a decade long stint as President of the ACLS, where he had devoted considerable time and effort to a successful process of engaging American researchers with their counterparts in Vietnam. Reynolds had provided critical support for that effort, and was searching for a new mission now that the restoration of diplomatic ties between Washington and Hanoi had been achieved. We heard at the time, but never confirmed, that Cuban government willingness to explore ties to CRF and the Councils stemmed at least in part from favorable assessments conveyed to them by the Vietnamese. Whatever the source of this green light, the result was an invitation for Katz, SSRC President Kenneth Prewitt, and Professor Ernest L. Eliel (former president of the American Chemical Society) to visit Havana to meet with senior officials in several Cuban ministries and the Academy of Sciences.

“To catalyze collaboration between la intelectualidad académica in both countries”

Following the success of that trip, Kenneth Prewitt called on Eric Hershberg, at the time serving as the SSRC Program Director responsible for Latin American activities, to staff an SSRC/ACLS Working Group on Cuba. Hershberg had his doubts, worried that the intellectual payoffs would be minimal and the time commitment would be overwhelming. And he dreaded the prospect of having to listen to Cuban authorities lecture him about the wretched embargo imposed by a government for which he had no use, and of suffering American officials’ obstruction of modest professional contacts with Cubans. Resigned to his fate, Hershberg made one request: that Stan Katz be drafted as the inaugural Chair of the soon-to-be established Working Group.

The rationale for the initiative, MacArthur staff said at the time, was that with the Cold War having ended and Fidel having reached the ripe old age of seventy, Cuba was destined for transition and normalization of relations with the United States was on the horizon. Hershberg’s response—“Maybe in thirty years, and what transition?”—proved, in the most critical respect, to be overly pessimistic; it would only take another twenty years for diplomatic ties to be restored.

“This SSRC initiative is part of the story of gradual rapprochement that had been taking place for many years prior to December 17, 2014.”

But if neither Cuba nor the United States has experienced the looked-for transition, a great deal has indeed changed, in both countries, and the SSRC initiative is part of the story of gradual rapprochement that had been taking place for many years prior to the December 17, 2014 announcements by Presidents Obama and Castro of their intention to restore diplomatic ties.


The Council initially entered into a partnership with the Academy of Sciences, with the blessing of the Cuban Ministries of Higher Education; Science, Technology, and Environment; and, most importantly, Foreign Affairs. An essential ingredient of success for this partnership was the level of trust that Katz developed quickly with Ismael Clark, the President of the Academy who traveled to the US for the first time once the arrangement was agreed upon in principle. While the initiative would operate fully within the constraints of both Cuban and American law, US officials were not part of the discussions, nor would they play a role analogous to that of the Academy in facilitating the efforts of the working group to augment the flow of researchers in both directions.

The next time we tried to bring Clark to the US, George W. Bush was president, and his administration had pulled back on the modest steps taken during the Clinton era to ease travel between the two long-estranged countries. The task of applying for licenses from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) became ever more onerous, and American rejection of the visa applications of harmless Cuban intellectuals became the rule rather than the exception. Things were only marginally better on the Cuban side, as Cuban scholars were routinely denied authorization to take part in workshops and conferences on topics that, seemingly arbitrarily, were deemed off limits by the authorities. As feared, an enormous expenditure of staff time often proved fruitless due to obstruction by bureaucrats on both sides. One of several low points came on the eve of the Iraq invasion that everyone could see coming, when, at a somber meeting of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) in Dallas, all of the Cuban participants were denied visas to enter the United States. To some observers, it seemed that prospects for academic engagement between the two countries were dim, and LASA opted to boycott the US in response, holding the next three of its congresses outside the United States on grounds that the government’s denial of visa applications undermined the Association’s mission of catalyzing international scholarly dialogue.

By then the Council had become a trusted partner for numerous Cuban academic institutions, and the relationships forged during the second half of the 1990s proved resilient in the face of intermittent obstruction from both governments. A working group had been established quickly after the agreement with the Academy, with an equal number of members from both countries and the useful participation of Luis Rubio, a Mexican political scientist and public intellectual whose presence signaled the Council’s commitment to promote multilateral rather than strictly bilateral conversations.

The Working Group on Cuba sponsored a number of seminars as well as visits to the island by prominent social scientists from the United States (and later from Europe and Latin America as well). Over the years, this initiative, championed in Havana by group member Juan Luis Martin, supported lecture tours in Cuba by scholars such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Erik Olin Wright, Craig Calhoun, Neil Smelser, David Stark, and Doug Guthrie, among others. The working group also brought a number of Cuban scholars to the US for short term visits; awarded numerous conference travel grants competitively to enable Cuban academics—in the natural and physical sciences as well as social sciences and humanities—to take part in meetings throughout the world; supported the translation of a handful of Cuban publications into English, and arranged donations of the Library of America and other book collections to Cuban libraries in Havana and beyond. A series of workshops on state of the art research in cultural studies were facilitated by group member Luisa Campuzano, of Casa de las Americas, with impressive briefing books of current readings prepared by Marcial Godoy Anativia. Several activities aimed to promote scholarship in Cuban history, including a summer workshop, led by group member Lou Perez, which brought together Cuban and US doctoral students to do archival work in Washington, DC. Our activities encompassed the field of public health, as well, as group member Dr. Michelle Barry, of the Yale Medical School, engaged the Instituto Pedro Kouri (along with some of her residents) to work on HIV/AIDS-related topics.

There were also ambitious programs to train Cuban researchers in proposal preparation and project design, and to acquaint them with the expectations of philanthropic foundations and development assistance agencies that were beginning to contemplate or implement initiatives involving Cuban individuals and institutions. It was in support of these training workshops that the Ford Foundation first became involved, gradually replacing MacArthur, which moved on to other terrains (Reynolds remains engaged with the Council’s Cuba work to this day, but Ford has long been the sole core funder). The Ford commitment first expanded through its funding of efforts to bolster the capacity of Cuban libraries and archives to conserve their holdings against threats from the elements and to digitize critical collections held on the island. This would pave the way for the Council to convene an international committee focused on the needs of Cuban libraries and archives, leading to a number of projects that incorporated leading Cuban librarians and archivists into international networks and provided them with tools to increase access to vulnerable scholarly resources across the island.

It was in the context of this work that the Council was asked to spearhead the process of conserving the papers of Ernest Hemingway at Finca Vigia, the home where he lived outside of Havana. By 2008, the work had been completed and the materials were available to researchers at Finca Vigia and, in digital form, at the Kennedy Library in Massachussetts. Fidel Castro himself witnessed the signing of the agreement between Hershberg and, then director of Patrimonio Nacional, Marta Arjona. The images of the olive-drabbed Fidel presiding over the ceremony were broadcast on television around the world and on the front page of Granma, the Communist Party daily. This publicity put an end to the Council’s efforts to keep the program largely under the radar so as to avoid protests from hardliners in the US determined to block any engagement with the Cuban government.

Perhaps the most enduring substantive contribution of the Council’s efforts to social science research on Cuba—a contribution which made Hershberg learn to like the initiative after all—emerged from efforts to link Cuban economists with counterparts around the world and with experiences elsewhere, from Latin America to East Asia and Europe. The idea was to make sense of the challenges associated with what two decades later Raul Castro would label the updating of the Cuban economic model. Fidel famously stated from his perch in retirement in 2011 that “the Cuban model doesn’t work anymore even in Cuba,” but his country’s best economists knew that long before, and in the search for solutions were yearning for opportunities to interact with and learn from counterparts abroad.

The Council facilitated some of those efforts, though it was by no means easy, given US government constraints on using funds to support Cuban nationals—separate licenses needed to be secured for each individual Cuban for whom funding would be provided to travel to a third country—and the no less frustrating suspicions of some Cuban authorities that these economists, and their American backers, must have had pernicious intentions. In this context, we recognized that sending Cuban economists to China and Vietnam with American money was politically too hot to handle for the Academy, so we launched initiatives to do so with other Cuban institutions, and did so under the auspices, not of the Working Group on Cuba, but instead through the SSRC/ACLS Joint Committee on Latin American Studies (JCLAS), which was comprised of leading scholars from throughout the Americas and advised the Council on the full range of its activities involving Latin America.

Eventually a number of such trips took place, in several instances in partnership with Scandinavian institutions that were unburdened by US regulations and provoked less suspicion among hardliners in Havana. The noted Swedish economist Claes Brundenius proved an essential partner facilitating those efforts, with the support of Swedish and Norwegian funding agencies. The Cuban scholars who participated in these ventures have published a steady stream of high-quality political economy research that has not only shaped understanding of the transformation of the Cuban economy following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, but, more recently, has also influenced belated efforts by the Cuban government to move beyond the country’s antiquated system of central planning. The most notable components of this research focused on topics such as the reform of state-owned enterprises, strategies for attracting foreign investment, approaches to exchange rate management, and export diversification. With regard to the latter, a good deal of work was done to assess the degree to which Cuba’s substantial investments in education and training opened avenues for the island’s participation in knowledge intensive value chains across a range of industrial and service sector activities.

“The most impactful result of the Council’s leadership is being expressed indirectly, through the virtually seamless expansion of scholarly ties that followed.”

If the political economy research and the contributions to scholarly infrastructure associated with the libraries and archives initiatives are both certain to have lasting impacts, we have to acknowledge that we wish that we had accomplished more during these twenty years of SSRC engagement with Cuba. For much of this period, political constraints, primarily on the Cuban side, and financial constraints (which had political underpinnings), on the American side, prevented us from achieving the breadth of intellectual exchange and collaboration that both of us had originally hoped for. But it may be that the most impactful result of the Council’s leadership is being expressed indirectly, through the virtually seamless expansion of scholarly ties that followed immediately upon the December 17, 2014 announcement by Presidents Obama and Castro of their mutual commitment to normalizing relations between Cuba and the United States. Perhaps most tellingly, when, in December 2015, a participant in a Havana conference devoted to US-Cuba relations remarked that the opening had created opportunities for academic dialogue between the two countries, Soraya Castro, the organizer of the event and perhaps Cuba’s most prominent international relations scholar, interrupted the speaker abruptly. Those opportunities had been created two decades earlier, she asserted, when el Social Science began working with the Academy.

Whatever successes we enjoyed owed much to the wisdom, persistence and political savvy of a succession of Council staffers who were the day to day face of the SSRC in Cuba. For the past decade, this role has been played by Sarah Doty, who has become the quintessential go-to person for US universities and foundations seeking to explore opportunities for developing programs on the island. Most recently, the Cuba Program, working with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies  (CLALS), created a forum where scholars discussed and debated the broader implications of this dramatic shift.

Posted on June 7, 2016