The Politics (and Stories) of Fieldwork in Cuba: Good job, President Obama, but is this just ‘here we go again’?

(This guest post comes to us from Laurie Frederik. Laurie is Associate Professor and Director of the Latin American Studies Center at the University of Maryland, College Park.  She is author of Trumpets in the Mountains: Theatre and the Politics of National Culture in Cuba, Duke University Press, 2012, and has been conducting research in Cienfuegos and Guantánamo provinces since 1997. -Rex )

The promised opening up or “normalizing” of diplomatic relations with Cuba may or may not mean that much will change for researchers, although tourists and commercial entrepreneurs rejoice in its potential.  President Obama’s statement had significant performative value, a declaration more powerful than a promise, perhaps, given the authority of the speaker. It was exciting for those of us who have been struggling to conduct research on the island for many years, and it inspired a flurry of projected “what if” and “when…” scenarios.

As amazing as Obama’s and Raul Castro’s televised statements were, however (their simultaneity is also notable), real policy change probably has a long way to go.  There has been easing of restrictions before.  Does anyone really believe that Obama can do more than Carter or Clinton?  Does this moment simply mean that a new generation of ethnographers has a window of opportunity they must seize before the next clampdown and/or next election?  I think we all feel that after 54 years, it’s about time and that Obama would be the man to do it.  What remains to be seen is how fast, to what degree, and how the changes directly affect those on each side of the Florida straits.

To conduct research in Cuba during the early 1990s (legally), anthropologists first had to apply to the State Department for a U.S. license; a lengthy six to nine-month process that inevitably required at least one appeal and last minute travel plans.  We then had to obtain a visa from the Cuban State, in many cases, like mine, through the Ministry of Culture.  Cuban visas often demanded several preliminary trips and a lot more knocking on doors and face-to-face rapport building than usually necessary in other areas of the world.  A formal institutional affiliation was required.  For a visa, one had to have an official letter and ink stamp (or two) from the organization’s director and then the appropriate ministry had to also show approval with yet another letter and ink stamp.  Sticking one’s neck out for an individual was one thing, but for a Cuban citizen or institution to risk support of someone who might betray the Patría was another sort of gamble altogether.

After three short trips and six months of preliminary research, I was finally able to secure the necessary affiliation through one of Cuba’s “Centers of Investigation,” of which there are many, though not many interested in an American member.  There are researchers who have had to change project locations altogether when not granted permission in Cuba, despite their persistence and honest intentions.  Some steps have become easier in the last twenty years, others more complicated.  Hopefully, Cuba will no longer be on the “state-sponsor of terrorism” watch list, which has made customs procedures back into the United States not only drawn-out, but also sometimes antagonistic.  I have always traveled to Cuba legally, but I admit, accompanied by a defiant attitude when confronted by surly state officials.  This coming home ritual is a barometer of relations between Cuba and the U.S., and I wonder if the U.S. State Department will retrain its security officers anytime soon.  It will certainly be difficult to transform such a long-standing culture of suspicion in job descriptions including terms such as “homeland security.”

Both the U.S. and Cuba have given scholars a hard time about pursuing research and the rules of the game change frequently, making fieldwork in Cuba an ongoing and unpredictable adventure that tests endurance, persistence, patience, and one’s sense of humor.  Every ethnography of Cuba I’ve read contains at least a few pages that vividly describe what happened when finally being granted or losing access.  These stories are integral parts of work in Cuba.  A key element of the camaraderie among Cuba specialists has been these narrative accounts of entry and exit.  Part and parcel of doing research in Cuba are learning the various methods of getting there, receiving permissions, obtaining elusive letters, navigating the bureaucracy, being surreptitiously or overtly watched by both Cubans and U.S. officials, and learning to travel en botella (hitchhiking) on a wide range of vehicles.  We tell each other our stories; we warn and update each other about the latest experiences of our colleagues.  We are entertained by this storytelling, but more than that, we are linked in a particular form of Cuba-fieldworker communitas-building.

So, what happens if it becomes easy for everyone to simply get on a plane and go without hassle?  This has always been the case for Canadian and European travelers, but even researchers from these regions seem to have comic and tragic access stories.  (I cannot speak for Eastern European, Asian, or even Latin American ethnographers, since I have met very few of them).  Like the flux in U.S. policy – open and closed, open and closed – there have been waves of Cuban tolerance and measures to control foreign researchers.  A relaxation of U.S. policy may enable easier travel from here to there, but it may also mean the need for more state regulation on the Cuban side, especially in outlying areas of the country, but also within the capital city of Havana.

I expect that the control on Cuban research visas will tighten, just as they did in the late 1990s once cultural institutions realized the dollar value of their support (that official letter and ink stamp) and the country was suddenly swamped with enthusiastic social scientists requesting opportunities for participant observation and semi-structured interviews.  Between 1997 and 2000, the cost of a student or research visa went from conventional rapport building to $150+/month fees and frequent report-backs.  Some requests for permission to begin new projects were outright denied, regardless of grant money available in exchange. I was very lucky in this respect, finding trusted (and trusting) contacts early and slipping into an artistic and world that moved through the quieter, less populated, and differently monitored regions of the countryside, but since my first trips, conducting research in the eastern and rural regions have also become a bit trickier.

There is a sort of jesting yet slightly serious assessment of fieldworkers – that if you had an easy time doing research in Cuba, regardless of its methodological rigor and the theoretical brilliance of your arguments, regardless of your nationality, then you have not fully completed the rite of passage.  Trust me, I am not preemptively nostalgic for this kind of fieldwork lore and, certainly, I would love to have easier field experiences than I have had. The loosening of restrictions may now just pose one challenge instead of two: not getting to Cuba anymore, but getting into it and then staying to conduct ethnographic research.   Maybe the U.S. government will allow us to jump on Southwest or Delta to fly direct without fuss, but the Cuban government will certainly be stopping us in the liminal not-yet-Cuba space of the airport to say, “oye, un momento, not so fast.”

For anthropological fieldworkers, the granting of Obama’s promise in full or part will generate new versions of “getting in” stories — stories of admittance and also new types of transgressions – once (and still) in regard to our home country’s outdated policies.  We love Cuba, in part, because we admire its rebellious and unlikely stance against the most powerful political leaders (eleven and counting) of the so-called free world.  But rebellion can be exhausting.

More importantly, we hope that the normalization will allow the flow of Cuban scholars, artists, and other citizens to travel to the United States as well.  It has always been even more difficult for Cubans to travel here.  If they build a raft, swim through turbulent and shark-infested waters, and actually survive long enough to set foot on Florida sand, they are welcomed with open arms and allowed to stay.  However, those attempting more conventional modes of travel and reasons for wanting to visit U.S. territory (academic conferences, artistic festivals, study at universities, work opportunities, vacation, etc.) are often denied entry.  It is time for perspectives from the island to be given a long overdue spotlight across borders, and for a greater variety of fieldwork stories to be shared in both English and Spanish.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

2 thoughts on “The Politics (and Stories) of Fieldwork in Cuba: Good job, President Obama, but is this just ‘here we go again’?

  1. I wonder about the stories of Cuban ethnographers attempting fieldwork in the U.S… Are there any? What would those say?

  2. “Goya” – that is what I would like to know and see also. I don’t think many Cubans are conducting “fieldwork” in the U.S. as much as living here – having arrived or immigrated, some temporarily or indefinitely working in various capacities in government, business, or art. If the U.S. truly opens its doors and grants visas to Cuban researchers for the sake of research, then it will be great to hear what Cubans from the island write about and present at anthropology and other academic conferences. I’m sure there already are stories, but perhaps not defined as stories from “the field” in the same way anthropologists might use the term.

Comments are closed.