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Harvard and Havana


Since Fidel Castro took power, direct travel and communications between the United States and Cuba have been proscribed. But academic and cultural exchanges have been sustained. Those channels are now widening, with the result that the presence of Harvard scholars and students in Cuba, and of Cubans at Harvard, is no longer rare.

Some of this traffic reflects historic relationships. Following the Spanish-American War, the U.S. military governor of the island, Leonard Wood, M.D. 1884--former commander of the "Rough Riders"--and Harvard president Charles William Eliot arranged for 1,283 Cuban teachers to visit the University in the summer of 1900, to be trained in the workings of American-style education. Eliot, a devoted summer resident of Maine, that year stayed in Cambridge to oversee the visitors' studies, and put up four of them in his own home. The Cienfuegos Botanical Garden--until 1961 the Harvard Botanical Garden, and before that the Atkins Institute for Tropical Research--was founded at the turn of the century as a research center for the sugarcane industry. In time, it evolved into the tropical adjunct of the Arnold Arboretum, and served for decades as an important center of botanical studies.

Harvardians have also maintained a presence on the island individually. For example, Richard Levins, Rock professor of population sciences at the School of Public Health, has worked since the mid 1960s as an adviser to the Cuban government on issues in agriculture, ecology, and public health. In 1999 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Havana.

Under the auspices of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (supported by the MacArthur Foundation), faculty and student exchanges with Cuba have become much more frequent. The Winter 2000 issue of the center's newsletter, DRCLAS News, focuses on Cuba. It contains policy analyses and reports by Harvard faculty members and graduate students and by guest scholars, including several articles on the Harvard-Havana connection historically and today. The texts may be found on-line at; to obtain a copy of the issue, which contains many photographs of contemporary Cuban life, contact the center at [email protected] or 61 Kirkland Street, Cambridge 02138. ~The Editors