Cuban Collaboration

After period of uncertainty, scholars in Boston and Havana celebrate release of their co-authored book.
November 27, 2006

For an American scholar of Cuban history and culture, one visit to Havana is a privilege. Multiple trips without incident is a blessing. Dick Cluster considers himself downright afortunado.

The University of Massachusetts at Boston professor not only has made numerous visits to the Cuban capital since 2002, he has also cleared all the hurdles to co-authoring a book with a Havana scholar -- something that a few years ago would have seemed highly unlikely.

U.S. Department of State policies have made it difficult for academics from the United States and Cuba to form partnerships -- particularly since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Publishers’ and authors’ organizations have filed suit over regulations of the U.S. Office of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control that the groups say effectively kept American publishers from publishing books that originate in a country that is subject to a U.S. trade embargo.

The State Department has clamped down on study abroad in Cuba, as well as scholarly visits to the country. But in 2004, the Treasury Department loosened its restrictions on publishing contracts, opening the possibility for cross-country collaboration and allowing Cluster and his co-author, Rafael Hernández, a Cuban citizen, their window of opportunity.

“When the winds are blowing right it’s possible to do these things,” Cluster said.

He and Hernández are traveling the Northeast this month in preparation for the release of their title, The History of Havana (Palgrave Macmillan), due out this week . The 320-page book covers the economic, social and cultural history of Havana. “The goal is to say: 'What was it like to live in Havana at all these periods and why?'" Cluster said. “The ‘why’ gets into politics, economics and city planning a bit.”

The authors think their effort represents the first jointly written book between U.S. and Cuban scholars whose book was commissioned in advance by an American publisher.

“I am pleased to see collaboration between American and Cuban scholars. It reminds us that the economic embargo against Cuba by the United States cannot prevent scholarly cooperation among scholars of the two nations,” said Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors.

But getting the book from concept to completed text wasn’t easy. Cluster and Hernández met in Boston two decades ago while Hernández was doing researching while on a work visa. Cluster, the associate director of UMass-Boston’s University Honors Program, said he has taken an interest in Cuban culture ever since his first trip to Havana in 1969. He translates Cuban literature and teaches Cuban politics and history courses.

When Cluster explored the idea of a writing book about all things Cuban, he knew he needed a native son to give the project legs. Hernández -- editor of Temasa, a Cuban quarterly in history, culture, economics and politics -- was his man. Hernández said that even though he had written extensively on the history of his country, he wanted a chance to reach a larger audience.

“We could try to do something that has never been done – each one of us working on our sides and writing in our own language,” Hernández said.

The two exchanged comments on the book mostly through e-mail, because they knew trips to visit each other wouldn't be easy. Cluster wrote a chapter in English, Hernández wrote one in Spanish, and Cluster translated it all back to English (which is the language of the book.)

Certain parts of the book required face-to-face interaction with Hernández, and Cluster traveled to Cuba with no trouble. Hernández, on the other hand, said he only was granted a temporary visa about half the time when he wanted to visit the U.S.

Otherwise, things were going smoothly. Still, Cluster knew of others in his field who hit snags while attempting similar cross-border projects because their publishers weren't on board. But he said Palgrave didn’t balk at the idea -- until it came time to negotiate a contract.

At that time, Cluster said the Treasury Department's regulations allowed Cuban authors who wrote books through American publishers only to be paid for completed work – not for advances. Cluster said the publisher wanted Cluster to write the book alone.

That news reached Cluster just before the 2004 Treasury Department changes went into effect. In the end, the loosening of rules allowed the contract to go forward.

“I frantically e-mailed copies of the new regulations to the publisher, to their lawyers, to Rafael,” Cluster said.

Hernández continued to make trips to Boston, and Cluster to Cuba, and the two hurried to finish the book while the political climate was in their favor.

Still, Hernández, now a visiting professor of Latin American studies at Harvard University who expects to return to Cuba , said he is never sure if his next trip to America will be denied. He said most Cuban writers wanting to come still get rejected.

“It was a lucky circumstance that I’m here now, but it’s not something that has to be an exception,” he said. “Two writers who want to work together can do it.”


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