Stetson’s Cuba Forum to Explore ‘Prospects for Democracy in Cuba’

Last year at Stetson University’s Cuba Forum, a vocal opponent of resuming relations with Cuba argued that American tourism and investment there would only serve to enrich its dictators.

Two weeks later, the panelist Mauricio Claver-Carone was tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to join his transition team and become a key adviser on U.S.-Cuban policy.

Trump has rolled back some of the measures adopted by President Obama to ease travel and trade between the two countries. Trump recently expelled 15 Cuban diplomats and pulled some U.S. Embassy personnel out of Havana after mysterious sonic attacks sickened staffers there, prompting the State Department to warn U.S. citizens “not to travel to Cuba.”

Against this backdrop, Stetson will host its second annual Cuba Forum on Thursday, Nov. 9, at 6 p.m. with panelists discussing the “Prospects for Democracy in Cuba” in the Marshall & Vera Lea Rinker Welcome Center. Cultural credit is available for students and the event is open to the public.

Stetson Political Science Professor William Nylen, Ph.D., has organized the forums and hopes they become an annual event at Stetson, presenting both sides of the Cuban debate.

Angel de Fana

“It makes sense for a Florida institution to be talking about Cuba,” said Nylen, also director of the International Studies Program at Stetson. “To bring in some of the finest experts from the island and from around the country is a wonderful feather in Stetson’s hat.”

The panelists this year include Angel de Fana, a former political prisoner in Cuba for 20 years who was on last year’s panel, and Richard Feinberg, Ph.D., a professor of International Political Economy in the School of Global Policy & Strategy at the University of California, San Diego. Joining them will be Cuban political activist Antonio Rodiles, who founded the forum, “Estado de Sats,” in Havana in 2010 to encourage debate about social, cultural and political issues in Cuba. Rodiles has been arrested and detained in Cuba, including being held in a prison cell for 19 days in November 2012, which led Amnesty International to issue an Urgent Action calling for his release.

Antonio Rodiles

Their discussion will be moderated by Eugene Huskey, Ph.D., Stetson professor of political science, and Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies.

Feinberg supports expanding economic ties with Cuba and wrote the 2016 book, “Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy.” A Nonresident Senior Fellow for the Brookings Institution, he argued in a post last month that the Trump administration’s “reckless hostility toward Cuba damages America’s interests.”

Richard Feinberg

The post, co-written by Feinberg and another Brookings Institution Fellow, said, “U.S. hostility risks damaging the coming transition to a new Cuban government after President Raul Castro steps down in early 2018 by strengthening the hand of anti-American hardliners who oppose further economic opening on the island.”

Stetson’s Professor Nylen added that economic growth on the Communist island nation can strengthen Cuba’s emerging middle class. And a strong middle class often pushes for freedoms – such as the ability to travel internationally or send their children to American universities.

“As you bring more and more foreigners in – tourists, entrepreneurs, investors – you also bring new ideas. You bring new freedoms, new interconnections that may have an impact on the personal freedom of the Cuban people,” said Nylen, who last visited Cuba in June 2016 through Stetson’s W.O.R.L.D. (World Outreach, Research, Learning and Development) program and the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE).

Stetson Political Science Professor William Nylen, Ph.D.,
William Nylen

“We know that when Vietnam and China began to integrate more economically, transformations took place,” he explained. “A lot of the debate from last year was how are the Cuban people benefitting from the opening announced by Raul (Castro) when he took power. This year we’re focusing less on the economics of Cuba’s ongoing transformation and asking about the politics about that ongoing transformation.”

But for Cuban exiles, such as de Fana, and others who support the U.S. trade embargo, expanding tourism and trade will only benefit the Castro regime because it holds a monopoly on business, including hotels and restaurants. The Castro regime has a long history of human rights abuses against the Cuban people, who struggle to live on about $20 a month, they said at last year’s forum.

audience listening to forum
More than 150 people attended Stetson University’s first Cuba Forum last year.

The Cuba Forum started last year after Stetson President Wendy B. Libby, Ph.D., and Stetson alumnus Leopoldo “Leo” Fernandez Pujals, who was exiled from Cuba at age 13, said they wanted Stetson to host an academic forum that explored both sides of the Cuban debate. Last year’s event attracted more than 150 students, faculty, staff and others.

“I’m pushing for this to be an annual event,” Professor Nylen said. “I really like these events … to make sure both sides of the story are told.”

-Cory Lancaster