by Amy DavisDaily Cougar Staff
Local news cameramen gathered around three mock tombstones symbolizing the death of basic human rights at a press conference Thursday in the University Center Arbor protesting the U.S. government's denial of visas to two Cuban students scheduled to lecture at the University of Houston
"This action by the State Department is an attack on free speech, academic freedom and the right to an unfettered education," said Mike Chamberlain, president of the Cuba Friendship Committee.
UH members of the Cuba Friendship Committee had hoped the two Cuban researchers, Maika Guerrero and Iroel Sanchez, would be able to represent Havana at a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the sister campus cultural exchange relationship established between the student governments at UH and the University of Havana.
But the government, citing "the totality of the Cuban situation," a reference government officials did not explain, refused to grant the visas. So, instead of a lecture, the Cuba Friendship Committee planned the press conference to announce the visa denial and to protest the government's infringement of human rights.
Guerrero and Sanchez's visit to UH would have marked the fourth annual lecture series at U.S. campuses organized by the Boston-based Faculty-Student Cuban Youth Lectures Committee.
Chamberlain said the three previous national tours of students and researchers from the Center of Studies for Youth were extremely successful in opening up a space for the exchange of ideas with members of academic institutions and larger public audiences.
In an editorial written by August Nimitz, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, and Gary Prevost, a professor at St. John's University, published in The New York Times, they wrote, "The State Department's rationale in denying the visas contradicts the fact that in the previous three years it granted Cubans from the same center in Havana visas to lecture in the U.S."
In a March 29 telephone call, Sean Murphy of the State Department's Cuba Desk said the denial was based on Section 2-12F of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which gives the president the right to deny entry into the United States to employees or officials of the Cuban government.
Murphy said visas are denied "whenever the president finds that entry would be detrimental to the interests of the U.S."
The department, which refused to put its position in writing, said the two youths were denied visas because their speaking tour was "for the purpose of advocacy."