A friend has forwarded me a solicitation from the University of Michigan’s Alumni Association to join them on a “Cultural Connection” visit to Cuba. It is a depressing piece of moral blindness. For $3,845, Wolverines can enjoy an eight-day trip, complete with “a visit to a local health clinic” to “learn about socialized medicine and the delivery of social services in Cuba,” a trip to an art institute to “compare and contrast the role of the arts in Cuba and the United States” and “identify any differences in the opportunities for artistic expression,” and a “substantive discussion” with the management team of a dance company to explore “the political and financial challenges they face” (i.e. the U.S. embargo) in exporting Cuban dance culture. There is a good deal more in the same vein, including a visit to the Museum of the Revolution and dinner at the Restaurante Vieja Havana, “formerly the American Club,” but you get the picture.

It would be pleasant if moral blindness was all that was involved here, but sadly, it’s not. Michigan alumni who sign on are demonstrating the kind of sympathies that will bring them to the attention of Cuban intelligence which, as the Myers case showed, knows how to take advantage of gullible Americans with an academic bent. As a defector from the Cuban Intelligence Service noted in 2002, visitors from U.S. universities are targeted “very often and in a massive way. For example, there was recently a cruise ship in Cuba with students from the University of Pennsylvania.  There were hundreds of students who automatically became objects of interest to the CuIS. . . . [who] using covers from the Foreign Ministry, or any other governmental organization like ICAP (Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples) . . . . come into contact with students and even lodge where the foreign students lodge and participate with them in all their activities.” The essence of this visit, apart from
providing hard currency to the fading Castro regime and giving it a bit of blue-washing, is that the University of Michigan is naively signing on to have its alumni spied upon and tested for any willingness to betray the United States.

If any of the UMich alumni are inclined to give Cuba the benefit of the doubt, they might contrast the harbor of Miami with that of Havana. The former, as Google shows, has hundreds of small private boats going to and fro, whereas the latter is almost entirely devoid of them. The reason is that anyone in Cuba who has a boat is a risk to flee to the United States, whereas no one in Miami is going to use a boat to flee to Cuba.

Perhaps one of the Michigan alumni who partakes of this miserable venture will retain enough self-possession to ask why it seems no one in Havana likes to sail, or why, in spite of recent and limited changes, Freedom House places Cuba among the world’s most repressive regimes and finds that 92 percent of Cubans get their news from government sources.

What is it about dictatorial regimes that give universities such a thrill up the leg? UMich would not survive for 24 hours in Cuba, but it is far from the only university that is willing to cozy up to totalitarians. The LSE’s ties to Qaddafi’s regime were notorious even before cracks appeared in his feet of clay, and the number of U.S. universities that can’t get enough China –especially including Yale –is vast. And it’s not just universities per se: academics of all stripes are evidently easy marks. Last summer, presumably because I’m a member of the American Historical Association, I was solicited by a mailing from People to People for a visit to Russia  that featured “unprecedented access” to such easy-to-access attractions as the Bolshoi Ballet and a Faberge egg (though not the graves of the journalists Putin has murdered). Evidently academics are easily impressed as well as gullible.

The easy answer is that universities are on the left, so they naturally overlook the sins of left-wing dictators. True, it’s hard to imagine UMich promoting a similar trip to Franco’s Spain, and true, the People to People visit was led by Elaine Tyler May, a past president of the Organization of American Historians and a well-known critic of both the Cold War and anti-communism. But Qaddafi was not on the left or the right as conventionally defined, and Putin, with his reactionary nostalgia, his corporate statism, and his pro-natalist policies (it would be interesting to know what Prof. May, as a feminist historian, makes of those), has more in common with fascism than Communism, so the ideological explanation doesn’t fully cut it. Academics are only leftists in passing. Fundamentally, they’re oppositional, a sentiment that in the U.S. expresses itself as leftism–and makes them natural allies of any regime that opposes the United States.

On the university level, blindness and bias probably take second place to a simpler desire: they want the money. That’s understandable, if far from glorious. And I’m not entirely opposed to visiting totalitarian societies: I visited the USSR in 1989, just before the Wall came down, and it opened my eyes to the fact that Ronald Reagan talked more sense about Communism than all his opponents combined. But ventures like Michigan’s offer the promise of access and the reality of a fully-programmed and controlled experience, and place educational institutions funded by the taxpayers in the position of tacitly endorsing and enabling oppressive regimes. That’s a dirty business, and the sooner Michigan – or its alumni, or the Michigan legislature – puts a stop to it, the better.