FORO CUBANO Vol 3, No. 27 – TEMA: ANÉCDOTAS I –
Anécdotas de Ted A. Henken
Ted A. Henken is a tenured associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Baruch College, City University of New York (CUNY) and holds a joint appointment in the Department of Black and Latino Studies, where he served as chairperson between 2010-2012. Henken earned his Ph.D. in Latin American Studies from Tulane University’s Roger Thayer Stone Center for Latin American Studies and is a past president of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE, 2012-2014).
Photo provided by the artist.
A past winner of Baruch College’s Presidential Excellence Award in Distinguished Teaching (2007), Henken specializes in courses on contemporary Cuban culture and society, introduction to sociology, sociology of the Internet, contemporary Latin America, Latinos in the U.S., among other topics. Therefore, Henken has closely followed the political and socioeconomic impact of increased Internet access and social media use in Cuba since the turn of the century. In that vein, he co-edited the book, “Cuba’s Digital Revolution: Citizen Innovation and State Policy”, with Sara Garcia Santamaria (University of Florida Press, 2021). Henken’s research also focuses on the social implications of Cuban economic reform and the rise of the private, “self-employed” sector on the island over the last 30 years (1990-2020). He is the co-author with Archibald Ritter of the book, “Entrepreneurial Cuba: The Changing Policy Landscape” (First Forum Press, 2015).
Henken has travelled to Cuba over 30 times since 1997 in order to conduct research and interviews and attend conferences. In March 2016, he was invited by the Obama White House to be present for the President’s historic state visit to the island. He has led educational, people-to-people visits to the island for U.S. business executives, filmmakers, and cruise ships, as well as serving as an on-camera consultant for the CNBC program “The Profit,” in November 2016.
1 - How did the idea of having Cuba as an object of study arise? Can you briefly describe how you conceived of your research project (and defined your personal role in it) before doing fieldwork?
Since the research for my doctoral dissertation, 17 years ago, I have made many more research trips to Cuba and had many additional, rich research experiences – not all of them positive.  I was first drawn to study Cuba after working with Cuban refugees who arrived in the US during 1995-1996. Some were former political prisoners who came directly from Havana to the US while others were balseros who spent time at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base before being paroled into the US. That experience (lasting about a year between February 1995 and April 1996), piqued my interest in learning more about Cuba by actually going there, which I did for the first time in summer 1997 as a graduate student at Tulane University.
I was also drawn to Cuba as a site for research since I have long followed and been quite critical of US foreign policy in the Americas. Cuba stood out to me as an intriguing (and commendable) case of a small country that had successfully resisted US imperialism but did so by paying a very high price (the embargo). While I still feel this way, my research in Cuba has significantly deepened and given nuance to this initial interest – especially as I came to understand the authoritarian character of the Revolution and the concomitant lack of fundamental freedoms for citizens of the country.
Thus, in some ways the real price Cuba has paid is its becoming a plaza sitiada where dissent is treated as treason – and this price has been paid by the Cuban people. My subject on that first trip in 1997 was to research the family backgrounds and motivations of the balseros and I visited and interviewed many families of them in and around Havana. I did not have any institutional affiliation or sponsorship on this trip but it was very short (just 3 weeks) and my research was simply comprised of visiting and interviewing family members of the balseros. I had previously met in the US. (This was half the research that went into my Master’s thesis that compared Cuban and Mexican immigration to the US.) However, on this trip I made initial contacts with some academics at the University of Havana and a number of think tanks in order to follow up with a more formal research project later.
Following that experience, I became interested in the topic of the contradictions of a socialist country like Cuba (which celebrated egalitarianism) promoting international tourism (based on providing luxury treatment to foreigners paying in hard currency). I never dug very deep into that topic since I was turned onto a related topic while doing research – that was self-employment and the underground economy – which I experienced first-hand as a foreigner and came to think of as a way for everyday Cubans to get a piece of the lucrative tourism industry. Thus, began my now more than 20 years of research into “entrepreneurial Cuba,” which has included more than a dozen research trips to the island where I typically did interviews with a variety of cuentapropistas.
The final area I have researched deeply is the internet (blogging, independent journalism, etc) but have also followed civil liberties and political rights (or the lack thereof) very closely as I write annual reports on that for Freedom House as well as the annual report on Freedom on the net.
2 - How would you describe the context of your stay (interaction with the host institution, access to sources, logistics)? What opportunities and constraints did you face, and how did you navigate them? Did you adapt methodologies?
This question is answered to some degree above and in the methodology chapter from my PhD dissertation. Here I will add this: Nearly all my research in Cuba has been done quite consciously in a tenuous “no-man’s-land” given that Cuba is an inhospitable research site (given the state-party control of the educational system and the antagonistic relationship between the US and Cuba). Moreover, I have always been interested in topics that were partly or completely “politically incorrect” or delicado or complicado on the island. First, migration; then, tourism; then, the private sector and the underground economy; then, finally the internet, blogging, and independent journalism.
This means that while I initially tried to get institutional sponsorship for my research from think tanks like, Instituto Cubano de Investigación Cultural Juan Marianello, I was told privately and off the record that it would be better for me to not seek permission from authorities since that would only 1) end up with being denied permission and 2) alert them of what I was going to do. Essentially, I have not sought or received permission from the Cuban state or academic authorities to do any of my research in Cuba and have never obtained a research or academic visa when traveling there – though I did try that a few fruitless times. I have always travelled to Cuba on tourist visas and have visited perhaps 30 times since 1997. You could say that my unofficial motto was: “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”
Of course, this has led to a number of brick walls and disagreeable experiences over the years but has also afforded me a great amount of freedom and flexibility while on the ground in Cuba. It’s a trade-off and I am sanguine about the choices I have made as they have led in my opinion to solid original research and included the informed consent of the ones who matter most– the actual research subjects themselves, the Cuban people.
Given that nearly all of my research has been focused on one or another aspect of Cuban independent civil society (empresarios, blogueros, periodistas, etc.), gaining access to them did not require any institutional affiliation or credential. Of course, I did have to get their permission to share their experiences with me after letting them know the purpose and parameters of my research (informed consent). In the early years, most preferred to not be named but were willing to share their experiences with me. This has changed somewhat in recent years and people have become less afraid to speak on the record.
One policy I have adhered to over the years is not to hide or lie about anything to anyone in Cuba. That doesn’t mean that I’m not discrete, I am, but I have never knowingly done anything illegal or any other thing that I would need to hide later. Transparency but discretion. Additionally, I also developed a pattern of saving my most provocative or risky interviews or interactions or research for the last few days of any stay in Cuba knowing that visiting/interviewing a dissident or independent blogger/journalist would put a target on my back (if it were not there already)!
I also found that I could develop working relationships with Cuban academics at various conferences over the years and via the internet in more recent years so that doing so in Cuba was not as necessary. Also, the ubiquity of social media and encrypted messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, Twitter DM, etc. have become wonderful, immediate, and extremely useful ways to contact colleagues and subjects in Cuba.
3 - Were there any key events, situations, contacts or experiences during your stay that you would present as anecdotes about doing fieldwork in Cuba?
See the blog post that I link to above for a good example of this. In general, I’d say that my various interrogations and knowing that state security was surveilling me have been the most important “situations” I have been in vis-à-vis doing research in Cuba. I can still vividly remember recording a video interview of Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo in Plaza Mayor in La Habana Vieja (his idea) and being extremely paranoid that state security would appear at any moment and cart both of us off to jail! I don’t know how people like him could deal with that stress everyday of their lives! I had a plane ticket and the protection of an American passport.
Another key thing or strategy of mine was to take full advantage of the US-Cuba engagement and normalization under Obama between 2014-2017. This afforded me two big advantages as a researcher: first, it lowered the temperature and paranoia on the island about the presence of North Americans (plus there were so many of us flooding the island then and pumping so much needed dollars into the economy) making doing research and establishing contacts far easier; and second, it provided me with many opportunities to travel to the island that were not strictly research-oriented but which allowed me the opportunity to update my research and knowledge-base while there.
Another item that might be of interest to you is my intended participation at a University of Havana conference in November 2019, to which I was explicitly un-invited at the very last minute. The conference was jointly organized by Rutgers University and the University of Havana but it seems that Rutgers really did all the legwork and the UH had no idea that I was on the program but balked at my participation when it realized I was scheduled to present (ADN Cuba, 2019).
4 - Beyond generating objective data, how did the fieldwork process consolidate/change your perception?
Being simultaneously aware of the long history of US imperial designs on Cuba (disrespect for its sovereignty and a policy based on regime change) and of the authoritarian nature of the Cuban “Revolution” or system or government, I have always tried to keep an open mind and listen to a wide variety of sources about Cuba and when I’m in Cuba. Apart from bald government propaganda and extreme and violent anticommunism, I have tried to listen and learn from all sides. One of the most surprising threads I’ve found is that the most eloquent and convincing critics of the government (for me) are those that come from the left – people like Sam Farber, Isbel Díaz, or Armando Chaguaceda. They can criticize Cuban socialism so effectively because they know it intimately, share some of its key ideals, and thus know how far the apple of the “Revolution” has fallen from the tree of liberation.
In terms of actually doing fieldwork, I’d say that there are a few factors that “make or break” a project or at least make it easier or much harder: 1. What country do you come from? (Canada is better than the US) 2. What is your topic? (past is better than present and fluff is better than hard hitting and controversial topics) 3. What is your angle? (progressives or leftists have more leeway than critics or “liberals”) 4. Who is your sponsor, protector, or advocate within the system? (institutional affiliations are a way to keep foreigners in check and those without them are suspicious) 5. Who is your sponsor or academic base outside of Cuba? (Harvard is better than the University of Miami). Different answers to these questions can either facilitate or throw obstacles in one’s path.
It also helps to have a topic that can have two faces – that is, one face or profile that would seem rather innocuous to the gestapo on the island (“I’m researching the expansion of internet access on the island and how it facilitates the endurance of family connections with the diaspora”) vs. the deeper or real face that they would object to if they knew it was the real focus of our research (“the use of internet access by independent civil society groups to convene public protests from LGBT to animal rights”).
 I point you to my blog where I describe one research experience from 2011 that ended quite badly: “"This will be your last time" - A reflection on my final conversation in Cuba (update)”. 23. June 2011. Additionally, I participated in an exchange about doing research in Cuba that was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2011. https://www.chronicle.com/article/research-in-cuba-is-challenging-leave-your-sunblock-home/?cid=gen_sign_in.
See also the Annex for a copy of Henken´s letter to the editor and a link to the original article by Jorge Sanguinetty that the professor responded to: Basken, Paul. “Push for Student Exchanges With Cuba Hits Obstacles, Both Political and Academic”. https://www.chronicle.com/article/push-for-student-exchanges-with-cuba-hits-obstacles-both-political-and-academic/ 9. March 2010.
 “Self-Employment in Havana: Research Questions, Methods, And Institutional Oversight” In:
Henken, T. A. (2002). Condemned to informality: Cuba's experiments with self-employment during the Special Period. Tulane University.