Cuba softens line on economist

August 27, 1999

MONTREAL. Cuba's attitude to critical academics may be easing only months after the jailing of four dissidents who questioned the country's economic and political policies.

A Cuban professor who faced the sack for speaking out on the economy is to keep his job after academic and diplomatic efforts.

Omar Everleny Perez Villanueva faced possible dismissal from his jobs as director of a Cuban economic think-tank and professor at the University of Havana. Earlier this year, he gave a lecture that took a pessimistic view of the island's economic prospects and allegedly embarrassed the government.

After learning that Professor Everleny risked being penalised for his views, a top Canadian research centre with long-time funding ties to Cuba made an uncharacteristic angry appeal.

In a letter to Canada's ambassador to Cuba, Maureen O'Neil, the president of the Ottawa-based International Development Re-search Centre, wrote: "It appears the Communist Party decided to make an example of him to discourage critical analysis by other researchers, university professors and students."

Dave Todd, spokesman for the IDRC, which provides funds and advice to developing country researchers, added that the matter is a case of academic freedom.

Others, including Canada's department of foreign affairs and the vice-chancellor of Havana (a member of the Communist Party's central committee), also took up Professor Everleny's case.

Diplomacy bore fruit this month. While he has not been exonerated, Professor Everleny's punishment will be less severe than expected, according to one of his Canadian colleagues.

Archibald Ritter, professor of economics and international affairs at Carleton University said that Professor Everleny has been suspended for a year as director of the Centre for the Study of the Cuban Economy but will remain at the centre as a researcher. He will also keep his job as professor. Professor Everleny had requested that the media not contact him.

"His spirits are much better," said Professor Ritter, who, for the past five years, has been coordinating an economics masters programme at Havana, which finished this spring.

The IDRC has an even bigger economic research programme at Havana pending. He says the pressure from the IDRC, the university and the Canadian government was a helpful factor in softening the punishment.

Cuba's economic situation is a sensitive topic. The country lost three quarters of its foreign trade with the collapse of the Soviet Union. That sensitivity is felt in academic circles. Even high-ranking economists such as Professor Everleny, who was one of the architects of the liberalisation of the Cuban economy, have to be careful that they do not embarrass the government. "Researchers are exceedingly wary about what they say," said Professor Ritter, who adds that economists generally have to support public policy.

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