Academics and Research / News

PhD student wants to bridge gulf between U.S. and Cuba

Arturo Lopez-Levy says DU students should take every opportunity to engage in academics exchange with Cuba. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Cuba is only 90 miles from the United States, but for PhD student Arturo Lopez-Levy, the journey from the communist island nation to DU was much longer.

The Santa Clara, Cuba, native left his humble roots in 2001 in search of an educational experience that was more ideologically open. This eventually led him to his present life as a student, researcher, author, lecturer and political activist in the United States.

“My experience is that Cuba has a good education system,” he says. “However, it tends to be more restrictive. There is no open discussion in terms of different schools of thought. This idea … to think the unthinkable and to speak the unspeakable is at the core of the American education system, and this attracted me to come here.”

Lopez-Levy landed at Columbia University, where he received a master’s degree in international relations in 2003. But getting to that point wasn’t easy. Lopez-Levy recalls having his exit visa application to the United States denied, which required him to stop in Israel before traveling to New York.

Then there was the question of money. Prior to coming to the United States, Lopez-Levy worked for the Cuban government but resigned because his philosophies did not mesh with the country’s dominant Marxist view. He says he disagreed with aspects of Cuba’s foreign policy, including the government’s opposition to the first Iraqi war in 1990–91.

Due to his “ideologically deviated views,” the government considered him to be an enemy and punished him by preventing him from working in official positions in research or education after he resigned, he says. Lopez-Levy shelved books in a library, worked in agriculture and was a guide for Jewish tour groups in Cuba. That’s when he met Walter Scheuer, an American tourist and philanthropist at the nonprofit Four Oaks Foundation in New York.

Lopez-Levy told Scheuer he aspired to study in the United States but did not have the money. Scheuer brought Lopez-Levy’s case to the foundation, which sponsors students from around the world to pursue advanced education in the United States. The foundation granted him a scholarship to study at Columbia.

Lopez-Levy keeps Scheuer’s photo in his apartment because he doesn’t want to forget about his generosity and says Americans should recognize the positive side of humanity.

“I think that something people don’t mention is the generosity of Americans,” he says. “For instance, those Christian people. I’m Jewish, I don’t plan to convert, but I have great admiration for those Christian people and churches near DU. They give lunch, they bring foreign students to Thanksgiving dinners, it’s the good side of this country. We need to show it.”

His involvement with DU’s Institute for the Study of Israel in the Middle East (ISIME) introduced him to DU. ISIME invited him to give a lecture in 2003, and after meeting Tom Farer, the former dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, Lopez-Levy applied for DU’s PhD program in international studies.

“I was immediately struck by his intellectual maturity, his boundless curiosity and his evident desire to bridge academic theory to the practice of politics in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America,” Farer says.

Lopez-Levy says he liked DU, Denver and the mindset and approach of the school’s professors.

He is writing his dissertation on comparative democratization and one-party dominant regimes in Taiwan and Mexico, and traveled to both countries to research the topic. He also was part of a fellowship in Taiwan in fall 2010.

Lopez-Levy chose not to write his dissertation about Cuba because he wanted to expand his areas of academic study.

That’s not to say Lopez-Levy doesn’t ever talk about Cuba. He uses his expertise in Cuban relations as a consultant for two think tanks in Washington, D.C., where he writes articles and participates in panels and discussions about Cuban-American policies.

He also is a member of the advisory board for the magazine Espacio Laical, which is run by the Cuban-Catholic Church. Lopez-Levy says he’s a proponent of interfaith dialogue and was honored when Cardinal Jaime Ortega, an important Cuban-Catholic peacemaker, asked him to help the magazine establish a dialogue with the Cuban government about the country’s pending economic reform and liberalization.

Lopez-Levy also publishes articles, book chapters and opinion columns in academic journals, books, blogs and magazines in Spanish and English.

At DU, Lopez-Levy also teaches classes in comparative politics, Latin-American politics and globalization. He enjoys teaching about the Middle East because of his Jewish roots and connecting the threads of political issues happening throughout the world.

“My students like that I am able to connect the generalities and also the specificities of the regions and the countries,” he says, adding that he thinks social science issues will be less concentrated in specific regions in the future.

Lopez-Levy also shares his experiences and knowledge of Cuban politics with his students and says he doesn’t regret speaking out about policies back home.

“If [expressing my views] means being punished, you know what? There are moments that you need to accept that you are part of [a] bigger movement,” he says.

He says Cuba’s economic and social conditions are slowly improving. The country is becoming more tolerant of different religions and sexual orientations and is moving toward economic reform, but it is still a communist system.

Real change will depend on how long Fidel Castro lives and on the U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba, he says, adding that Castro is still a strong influence in the country and vocal about his opposition to personal wealth and market economies.

Lopez-Levy says the United States’ policy of unilateral sanctions against Cuba over the past 50 years has been terrible and has punished Cubans. As soon as the U.S. changes its policy to one of constructive engagement, economic reform will begin to develop in Cuba, he says.

But Lopez-Levy is quick to emphasize that there are many things about U.S. policy he does like.

“I believe that this is a country that is on the positive side of history,” he says. “I think in general it’s a country that promotes liberal democratic ideas.”

He says American students can benefit greatly from President Obama’s recent actions to open the academic exchange between the United States and Cuba; he encouraged people to engage with Cuba in a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine.

Lopez-Levy plans to be involved in Cuban tourism in addition to his many other endeavors. He says he wants to show students, religious groups and others what Cuba is all about and wants to help Cubans see the good side of America. This, he says, is a way he can live transcendently, for something more than himself.

“I don’t think that going to school should be a stop in your citizen life, in your civic engagement. It should be part of everything you do,” he says. “We should tell young people to care about their communities. Civic engagement isn’t something you can turn on and off.”

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