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Cuba’s Influence in American Academia

Cuba's influence in American Academy

Cuba’s Influence in American Academia.

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To accurately fathom the success of the Castro-Communist regime[1] in Cuba, as measured by its ability to fructuously withstand the pressures for democratic[2] liberalization and persevere in power, the mobilization of a supportive, widespread intellectual elite class[3] has been important and effectively achieved throughout the democratic world. This has been significantly the case in the United States, its most important challenge within the community of free countries. Academia has served Cuba as an indispensable tool in a dual capacity to: (1) assist in fostering radical political activism abroad (revolutionary and gradualist); (2) and facilitate internal power retention and even survival. Some of the salient displays of this relationship include:  (a) the concealment and downplaying of Cuba´s abysmal human rights record and other gross state misconducts; (b) application of the Marxian principle of the primacy of “revolutionary practice”; (c) emblematic governance for the New Left; (d) espionage (strategic, political and probably commercial); (e) multilateral movement facilitation; and (f) commercial lobbying.   


While a debate may range as to the specifics of whether the current Cuban sociopolitical model should be categorized as totalitarian, post-totalitarian or even authoritarian, the general criteria which has traditionally labeled and identified totalitarian models, e. g., a prevailing ideology; a single-ruling party rhetorically committed to that ideology; and monopolistic control by the regime of the following: (1) the mass media; (2) all armed operational public forces; and (3) the general economy and its salient institutions/organizations;[4] still accurately depicts the Cuban sociopolitical paradigm. Given the non-static nature of all ideal political regimes-types (democratic and nondemocratic) and the successful systemic adaptation of general market economic principles while safeguarding the Leninist state, cases such as China and Vietnam have demonstrated that this modern and pragmatic approach to totalitarian rule still persists.


Elite mobility on communist Cuba´s behalf, in the globe´s democracies, has been pivotal in complementing key aspects of its nonbelligerent foreign policy strategy for political durability. Multilateralism, what Robert O. Keohane identified as the coordination of international relations based on structuring principles and strategies between three or more states[5], has been one potent and persistent feature of Cuba´s targeted foreign relations scheme. Jorge I. Domínguez refers to multilateralism as the “weapon of the weak”.[6] Soft power, the notion coined by Joseph Nye that explains the political art of persuasion by means of cooptation and convincing, without the utilization of force or the expenditure of huge sums of money,[7] has been the other premier, nonviolent mode of promoting its interests abroad.      


Both principles of multilateralism and soft power, within the context of Cuban politics, are heavily influenced by the overarching premise of cultural hegemony and the role assigned to the elite intellectual class, as prescribed by Antonio Gramsci. The incorporation of elite non-official players as part of an organic regime-structure put together to accommodate the nondemocratic state´s political objectives has been documented. “Power”, noted Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “…lies exclusively in the force produced through organization”.[8] In her seminal work, Arendt identified an organizational apparatus of six levels, each with its particular role in the regime.[9] In modern lexicon these would consist of non-official sympathizers, front organizations, the Party, the secret (or political) police, an intimate group of close advisers and the leadership. The intellectual can fit into any of these categories. More recent works that have built upon Arendt´s have included other levels such as the military/entrepreneur class.[10]    


The managed organizations of political power and society, along with the regime´s pragmatic alignment with factors of modernity such as globalization, transnational credit institutions, international division of labor, etc., have proven crucial for purposes of longevity and power retention. Cuba is one of the six remaining communist dictatorships on the planet and the only one that is non-Asian.[11] How could Cuban communism have overcome its many shortfalls and survive in a hemisphere where its most powerful member has the world´s biggest economy, the strongest armed forces and is the most successful and longest consistently running democracy? By recruiting in the United States (and the free world) a corps of sympathizers composed of elites, intellectuals and other influential and well connected individuals and institutions, Cuba has managed to navigate the channels of multilateralism and soft power (in the U. S. and internationally) mitigating fatigue during certain periods and in others, averting collapse. American academia has been most useful, in this fundamental regard, to the Castro-Communist regime.  




In terms of the overall investment, no strategy has yielded communist Cuba greater returns then its strategic penetration of American academia. This point is logical. Academia serves as a country´s nerve center. Colleges and universities render unto a free society brigades of its most influential, powerful and productive members. Influence trafficking, information manipulation, public relations damage control and image promotion are all fundamental variables which have helped keep Havana´s communist dictatorship in power. The university affords Cuba a wide range of potentially valuable assets by way of ambassadors of goodwill that will serve as courtesans on its behalf.


The open door policy, ample quantity and wide variation of American higher education, with its diverse network of public and private colleges, community colleges, universities and other places of post high school learning, establishes a broad spectrum of alternatives. It allows for a broad selection of individuals from specifically-targeted socioeconomic background and/or perceived particular ideological inclination that may fit particular profiles the Cuban regime is seeking. The fact that the United States is a free country with guaranteed liberties also alleviates the strains of penetrating academia. The inherent nature of the academic community to foster free thinking and welcome alternative and challenging criteria´s, serve as fertile ground for the recruitment, cooptation and influence of individuals and institutions that can disproportionally impact a nation.


It should come as no surprise that any state that wishes to comprehensively impact the policy of another state to its benefit, would not go to the most seminal source for the necessary material: the university campus. American government including the military and intelligence communities, business, cultural, civic and religious sectors of society all draw from higher education for their personnel. It is safe to conclude that despite the homogeneous cross-cultural composition of American society, its most influential citizens (and residents) have at some point been connected with a university. The payoff for a cash-strapped dictatorship like the Cuban assumes rewards of geometric proportions when investing in the recruitment/cooptation of people associated with academia.                 


The interest and involvement of Cuba´s intelligence services (as well as other dictatorial regimes) in the infiltration of American universities for purposes of elite class recruitment/cooptation has been well supported.[12] Academia has proven to be a rich goldmine, for numerous nondemocratic regimes such as Cuba´s. The elite class cooptation/recruitment has had various objectives in mind. The task of espionage enlistment to provide privileged information on the United States and the Cuban exile community has been an obvious objective of infiltration of American universities. José Cohen, an ex intelligence officer from Cuba´s Ministry of Intelligence who defected, has provided abundant information that describes Cuba´s sophisticated scheme and intrinsic structure tiered according to the perceived value of targets.[13] The notorious espionage cases of Ana Belén Montes, Walter and Gwendolyn Myers, Marta Rita Velázquez and Carlos and Elsa Álvarez highlight communist Cuba´s capability and willingness to penetrate top American universities, particularly Johns Hopkins University, in search of fruitful spies.[14] While the focus of recruiting Americans (citizens and foreign nationals) to serve as spies and informants for the Castro regime are measurable and concretely easier to assess, this is not the case when the utilization of academia is geared for other important tasks crucial to its survival.


In addition to the obvious benefits Cuba receives from political espionage, there are other reasons the Castro dictatorship has aggressively and consistently penetrated the American academic community. Strategic furtherance in the commercial realm is highly likely to have been of value. Information obtained of scientific value as well as, patented product research and other privileged knowledge would bypass intellectual property and copyright laws protections. Exactly how much lucre the Cuban regime may have benefited from economic spying and theft is difficult to decipher at this time. When one considers, however, Cuba´s dire financial capability since 1959 and the permanency of a shortage economy,[15] and at the same time, it reports major breakthroughs in the biotechnological field, going so far as claiming to be able to satisfy 80% of its domestic prescription drug demand,[16] it raises doubts as to the authenticity of the data supporting these official claims or alternatively that greater credence should be given to the hypothesis of Cuba´s scientific pirating. Skeptics point to other related areas of concern in the Cuban biotechnological industry. If the Cuban regime has spent nearly $3.5 billion since 1986, as it claims, in the endeavor of biotechnology research and development, the paltry return on its investment of approximately $200 million dollars in the sales of vaccines and medicines,[17] would suggest it to be an abject failure, judging from a rational perspective. The claim that Cuba is basically self-sufficient in meeting its internal prescription drug demand is highly unlikely given the comprehensive lack of medicines available to the general Cuban population. Other charges made in the past decade about Cuba's biotechnology industry, while officially unsubstantiated, point to potential use of Cuba´s biotechnological capabilities in the germ-warfare business.[18] 




The most seminal gain for the Castro dictatorship in its involvement with American academia, it will be argued, is the multifaceted boon it receives from its public relations stratagem. Cuban communism´s longevity has been dependent, to a great extent, on its ability to project a favorable image. In the democratic globe, damage control has been a customary procedure. Cuba´s solid record of systematic and abominable human rights violations (accurately documented and historically committed), has been and remains an immutable intent of the Cuban regime. This is heightened by the fact that many of these violations constitute crimes against humanity as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. As a dictatorship where the ruling apparatus sustains a totalitarian control over the individual, the promotion of political inefficacy among opposition or potentially opposing/dissenting players, is part of the modus operandi and thus renders the limits imposed by democratic norms as obstacles to the necessary chores of repressing dissent and rewarding conformity.


The Cuban regime employs an elaborate system of social control, among its many tools for power retention. What Arendt classified as front (or mass) organizations offers Cuba, as well as other totalitarian states, a rationalizing motif for the inclusion of the political realm in the individual sphere of life.[19] More aggressively enforcing the regime´s will is the political police and the paramilitary street squads. This hierarchical model includes a legal scheme rife with injustices but tightly confected to assure that any competing political and social activism is criminalized. With the economy and its distribution system, the educational structure, the media, the retirement social insurance and safety net system, and health care system under the domination of the political sphere, it is no wonder that Cuban society has been unable to showcase a large-scale public campaign of regime-challenge. This model of organizing society and political power to suit nondemocratic rule bears with it an enormous price tag. The high cost of this population control machinery, comes with a highly inefficient economic model to fund its operations. Therein lays a grave contradiction and a persisting problem for communist Cuba: confronting the massive expenditures of regime-maintenance, with an economic model that is unproductive and antiquated.


Although the Cuban economic system is currently in the midst of a selective liberalizing process, Cuba continues to depend on outside sources of revenue to fund its nondemocratic political model. In fact, this has been the case since early on. Previously, the Castro regime instituted modifications to its economy, effectively launching a hybrid model in 1993. Although the Cuban state retained its dominant presence in the economic sphere, the centralized, non-foreign investor, single-currency blueprint was scrapped. Despite retrenchment drifts, the remnants of the hybrid state capitalist/mercantilist model are still in place and are now being further revamped. The constant, however, remains the dictatorial Leninist state and its continued urgency for support from an elite corps of individuals and institutions, who can press for the Castro regime´s, interests in their respective countries. These interests are generally financial, but with Cuba´s chronic and horrific human rights record, the tasks include the tactics of diverting attention from the issues associated with nondemocratic governance. This is where the mastery of soft power and multilateralism has worked wonders for Cuba´s dictatorial longevity. 


Cuba´s socialist experiment produces a quagmire. The essential need for control comes at a heavy cost. The socioeconomic order which most naturally complements the communist political dictatorship is barren, irrational and has proven incapable of adequately addressing the internal demands of its population without the influx of financial assistance from outside sources. At times, this assistance has come from regime-friendly countries and/or alliances which are ideologically sympathetic to Cuba and share common objectives. The relationship with the extinct USSR and the socialist bloc and, the current Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (“ALBA”) are just two examples of this type of ideologically-connected association. Other types of arrangements which have provided Cuba with much needed funds, access to markets, credit and technology have been with non-ideologically connected entities, states or institutions, which have established commercial interests. This category typically consists of countries, businesses and institutions from the democratic, capitalist world. Additionally, some authoritarian and other nondemocratic regimes, e. g., Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar, also have relationships with Cuba of a commercial nature. This last category is of less importance in terms of net financial impact, but they have supported Cuba in international forums.




Cuban communism has cultivated the relationship with intellectuals and other elites from the free world since its inception (from its embryonic stage actually). It has counted on the talent and resources drawn, directly and indirectly, from American academia to promote its interests as a permanent part of its foreign policy design. The Cuban regime has been keenly aware of the prodigious advantages good image-promotion provides. It can be argued that The New York Times reporter, Herbert L. Mathews, impacted American public opinion favorably on behalf of the nascent revolutionary movement. The February 17, 1957 interview with Fidel Castro in Oriente´s mountains[20] launched a relationship that many who are critical of the ensuing totalitarian experience, credit partly with the imposition of the U. S. arms embargo against the Batista dictatorship. This action by the Eisenhower administration severely weakened morale in the Cuban armed forces and leveled a “devastating” psychological blow precipitating its collapse, according to Earl E. T. Smith, the American ambassador.[21] This was exacerbated by the fact that the U. S. arms embargo decision was made in March, 1958, on the eve of the regime´s spring offensive against the guerrillas.[22] 


Having learned early on the advantages of sailing over waters smoothed by favorable foreign public opinion with elite support, the Castro-Communist regime implemented immediately an open door policy for a new type of revolutionary. Academia and the university were given new roles. The Soviet factory worker proletariat and the Chinese farmer were the divergent prototypes, within the Marxist camp. The polemic question of “who” should be the field agent for socialist world change had a paradigm shift in the communist world with the consolidation of Cuban communism. Once the movement to oust the Batista dictatorship, a coalition consisting of various groups including the 26th of July Movement, succeeded in reaching power, an ideological coup d'état took place in a little over a year and a half. This was another first. There is no instance in history where a communist movement/revolution, categorically negated its Marxist-Leninist ideological underpinnings and revealed them publicly after seizing power.[23] 


So entrenched has been the sultanistic component of the current Cuban regime, that despite the fact that Castro officially admitted being a communist in December 1961, it wasn´t until 1965 that Cuba´s single-ruling party labeled itself the Cuban Communist Party. The unconventional essence of the new Cuban communist model broke the traditional mold of Marxist ideological pattern.  Eurocommunism, the trend that started taking root in Western Europe in the 1950´s with the purpose of embodying a Marxist movement independent of Moscow, was replaced by Cuba´s impromptu New Left activism. The freshness that Eurocommunism brought to Marxist movements worldwide appeared to fall behind in attraction, as the Cuban communist project challenged the United States and the democracies of the Western Hemisphere with new vanguard players that centered on intellectuals and the university.


Its difference, in part, lies in the entity Cuban communism assigned to assist history in the class struggle fight for communist expansion. Cuba rendered the Soviet urban worker and the Chinese rural peasant obsolete, as the motors for revolutionary activism. Communist Cuba became the icon of the radical left primarily because of its emphasis on revolutionary practice over theory and its ample inclusion policy. Irving L. Horowitz labeled this new personification of radical revolutionary political activism as a “popular vanguard”.[24] Cuba´s vehemence on “revolutionary practice”, in fact, echoed the underlying sentiment of Karl Marx´s “Thesis on Feuerbach” which insisted that “Man must prove the truth…” and that “…the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question”.[25]


Cuban history has correctly depicted vibrant and fundamental political activism centered around the university. Students, as well as university professors, have been major players in the changing of the political landscape in Cuba since its days as a colony. The Castro regime logically continued on that tradition in its rule as it has sought to extend its revolution outside its borders. In other words, Cuba has developed an historic dependency on the university for political activism, particularly that which is revolutionary in nature. Drawing from that experience, Cuban communism launched as a matter of state policy a comprehensive campaign seeking to attract and gain support from the left-leaning intelligentsia from around the world.


Embracing the Marxian premise of stressing the practice over the abstract contemplation and liberalizing the requisites for socialist agents of change, the Cuban regime energized the New Left and assigned to elites in the academic community a more activist, vanguard role in its stratagem for hegemonic propagation and survival. The intellectual, as part of an elite corps of revolutionaries was in practice best exemplified by Cuban communism, but historically within the camp of communist theorists, there was a blueprint.




In the realm of theory, Antonio Gramsci, was like a tunnel that brought together Vladimir Lenin and Jean-Paul Sartre under the river of Marxism. Key to marking the differences between the founder of Soviet communism and the French philosopher was the role of the intellectual. The relevance of Gramsci to Marxian politics is huge, as his vision for political application continues to be rediscovered and put in force. It is in praxis where Gramscian has stood out more prominently. Cuban communism, intentionally or by pragmatic chance, nurtured as part of its practical policy of governance, a heightened role for the intellectual, especially in the academic domain.


This is the closet that any communist regime has come to materializing, as part of state polity, Gramsci´s organic intellectual, the concept that essentially branded two types of intellectuals: the basic men of letters that were bound to the prevailing, dominant culture (traditional) and the conscious-laden working class intellectual (organic). “The mode of being of the new intellectual”, stated Gramsci, “can no longer consist of eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life…”[26] This persistent tenet of the Cuban model, the permanent lobbying in academia in search of or in the cultivation of, the organic intellectual, is an unalterable component of Cuban communism. Hence the perception that the academic realm is the most adequate source to find elite recruits or sympathizers willing to assist in revolutionary practice, as the regime signals it to and only as an organic intellectual can do.


Herbert Marcuse, bringing the principles of the Frankfurt School, and Frantz Fanon, with the racial and decolonization underlying basis, contributed to Marxian praxis characteristics and tendencies that Cuban communism absorbed and produced a fusion that many in the radical left viewed as distinctly being a hybrid ideology. Yet, for the Cuban regime this intimacy with Marxist thinkers and their proposals which situated the intellectual at a level more prominent than any other communist state had done before, opened the door and hearts of American universities to Cuba wide open. This unexamined prejudice which defies the empirical evidence weighing heavily against the Cuban dictatorship, needs to be illustrated.




The Castro regime immediately proceeded, upon consolidating power, to move in international circles by way of established alliances and proximities with other like-minded states and radical movements. This was consistent with Cuban communism´s open door policy of revolutionary inclusion made official with its dictum, as pronounced in the Second Havana Congress in 1962, “the duty of every revolutionary is to make revolution”.[27] Immediately proximity was sought with the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc. Simultaneously, a bond was established with radical subversive movements in the Americas. Curiously, many of these movements came from different Marxist factions. The sectarian differences, however, were mitigated by the amplitude of the Cuban model. The 1966 Tricontinental Congress and its ensuing Organization for the Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America, and the Organization for Latin American Solidarity were examples of Cuba´s navigation in foreign relations by way of multilateral entities who provided a shield to the Cuban regime.


These relations and the legitimacy the Cuban dictatorship enjoyed with the radical left were facilitated extraordinarily by the tight-knit relationship it developed with academia in the free world. With the implosion of Soviet communism, Cuba commandeered, through the Sao Paulo Forum, new regional and international organizations to continue its protected status as a member of multilateral groups. ALBA and CELAC are two of the newest organizations with which shield Cuban foreign policy from isolation, as well as serving it enormous financial assistance.




Cuba has, to a great degree, charmed academia in the United States. An academic institution that openly displays enamorment with Cuba is the Latin American Studies Association (LASA). Organizations like LASA, which claims to be the largest professional association in the world for individuals and institutions engaged in the study of Latin America and the Caribbean with over 7,000 members, has actively promoted the interests of the Cuban regime.[28] 


The necessity of Cuban communism to shield itself from its persistent record of gross and systematic human rights violations and other serious state wrongdoings assures that the courting of academia will continue to be a priority. The renewed diplomatic relations with the United States, a foreign policy priority for Cuba since the 1990s´, is hampered by the economic sanctions still in place. When one considers what remains to be done from the Cuban perspective: ending the embargo, accessing U. S. tax-payer guaranteed credits business facilitation, gaining admission into international financial institutions and receiving an expected avalanche of calculated business ventures between American businesses’ and the Cuban regime´s commercial conglomerates run by its military, academia will most assuredly be prioritized strategically in this next phase of Cuba´s public relations offensive.


American academia will thus continue to be penetrated and influenced.  Strategies such as soft power and multilateralism, constants in Cuba´s political navigation, depend on the results of its engagement with the cultural elite, including very importantly, the American university. This traditional practice of Cuba, so laden into the fabric of its praxis, can be counted on to continuing to have precedence.

Shiling, Julio M. “Cuba´s Influence in American Academia”, Cuba in Transition. Volume 25, Papers and Proceedings of the Twenty-Fifth Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE), Miami: ASCE, July 30–August 1, 2015, pp. 288-297.



[1] The categorization of “Castro-Communist” depicts the Cuban dictatorial model. It is a hybrid case of nondemocratic rule within the operational mold of a regime which is both totalitarian and sultanistic. For a broad description of nondemocratic regime-types see Linz and Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition (1996), pp. 38-54; Linz, “An authoritarian regime…” (1964), pp. 291-342;; Schapiro, Totalitarianism (1972), pp. 109, 112-113, 115; Chehabi and Linz, Sultanistic Regimes (1998), pp. 8-9.

[2] For purposes of this study, Robert A. Dahl´s definition of liberal democracy (or polyarchy) will be used. Among its highlights are the ability of its citizenry to express themselves and speak out against the government, the regime, its socioeconomic order, and the dominant ideology without the danger of being punished or reprimanded and the lawful capability to form independent political parties and interest groups. See Dahl, Democracy and its Critics (1989), pp. 221, 233. 

[3] This incorporates the notion of “elite theory” as posited by thinkers such as Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, Robert Michels and C. Wright Mills. 

[4] Friedrich, “The evolving theory and practice of totalitarian regimes” (1969), p. 126.

[5] Keohane, “Multilateralism: An Agenda for Research” (1990), p. 731.

[6] Domínguez, “Cuba and the pax americana” (2007), p. 205.

[7] Nye, Soft Power (2004).

[8] Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1976), p. 418.

[9] Ibid., pp. 364-388.

[10] Shiling, Dictaduras y sus Paradigmas I (2013), p. 79.

[11] The others are China, Tibet, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea. Note that almost all have upgraded their economic models into hybrid, productive economies (state capitalist/mercantilist) achieved through liberalization. North Korea, the exception, is for practical considerations an economic dependency of China.

[12] Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Higher Education and National Security” (2011); De la Cova, “Academic Espionage” (1993); Golden, “American Universities Infected by Foreign Spies" (2012); Chon, “US accuses Chinese professors of spying” (2015).

[13] Cohen, "El Servicio de Inteligencia Castrista" (2002).

[14] Stewart, “The Cuban Spy Network in the U.S. Government” (2013); Carmichael, True Believer (2007).

[15] “Shortage economy” is a term coined by Hungarian economist János Kornai who effectively argued that the chronic shortages in the ex socialist bloc and the USSR were due to systemic failures and not omissions and errors of defective central planning calculations. See Kornai, Economics of Shortage (1980).

[16] Evenson, “Cuba´s Biotechnological Revolution” (2007). Accessed September 3, 2015 from

[17] Cereijo, “Summary of Cuba's Biotechnology Capacity”. Accessed  September 4, 2015 from

[18] Miller, “Washington Accuses Cuba of Germ-Warfare Research” (2002). Accessed September 3, 2015 from; Eaton, A shot in the arm?: Cuba's biotech industry raises hope, suspicion” (2003). Accessed September 3, 2015 from

[19] Arendt, op. cit., pp. 366, 413.

[20] Matthews, “Cuban Rebel is Visited in Hideout”. (1957), p. 1. Accessed September 10, 2015 from 

[21] Smith, The Fourth Floor (1962) pp. 48, 107.

[22] Perez, “Cuba, c. 1930-1959” (2006) p. 91.

[23] Fidel Castro consistently denied publicly that he or the movement he belonged to, were communist. Finally, during a speech in December 2nd 1961 (a month shy of its two year anniversary), Castro emphatically admitted that he was a Marxist-Leninist and would be so until the day he died.

[24] Horowitz, “Military Origin and Outcomes of the Cuban Revolution” (1986) p. 597. 

[25] Marx, “Thesis on Feuerbach”. (1845) Accessed September 4, 2015 from

[26] Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (1971), pp. 9–10.


[27] Artaraz, Cuba and Western Intellectuals (2009) pp. 141-142

[28] LASA, “Resolution on Obama Policy”. Accessed July 22, 2015 from; “U.S. Academicians Back Cuba, Condemn Blockade”. Escambray, (2012). Accessed 14 July 2015.






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Julio M. Shiling is a political scientist, writer, columnist, lecturer, media commentator, and director of Patria de Martí and The CubanAmerican Voice. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science from Florida International University (FIU) in Miami, Florida. He is a member of The American Political Science Association and The PEN Club (Cuban Writers in Exile Chapter).

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