Friday, June 6, 2008


Forbidden Cuba! Hidden by a veil of myths and misconceptions, romanticized, villified, desirable, tempting, waiting…

Most Americans have never been to Cuba and many, many would very much like to. Others say they wouldn’t dream of visiting that communist country run by Fidel—now Raoul--Castro and his evildoers. Still others conclude that any country that produces so much good music can’t be all that bad. People tell me it’s as dangerous to enter as it is leave Cuba as it is to leave.

No wonder then that the country remains a mysterious, forbidden but also enticing place in American minds.I’m not easily impressed by celebrity, McMansions, power, bling or people who make money from making money. I’m not even that impressed by people who speak many languages or publish many books or who have access to high places. What does impress me are people who believe deeply enough in an idea to nourish it and to give it form-- over the best part of a lifetime and against long odds.

One such person is Sandra Levinson and the organization she has devoted much of her working life to is the Center for Cuban Studies in Manhattan. Her idea is to show Cuba as it really is.

A native of Iowa, Sandy Levinson’s background includes a Fulbright scholarship, Stamford University, City College New York, Ramparts magazine and a group of academic friends, the “NY Review of Books crowd” she says, who, in the '70s, started a research library and media center to correct the grievous lack of information about the country, especially material that came directly from Cuba. Her knowledge of Cuba includes more than 300 trips to Cuba in the past 40 or so years.

Sandy raised money for these efforts by writing “The Venceremos Brigade: Young Americans sharing the life and work of revolutionary Cuba”, a collection of diaries published in 1971 by Simon & Schuster. She is currently at work on another book, "Thicker than Blood: the Cuban Revolution and Divided Families" to be published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

These ventures in the 70s culminated in The Center for Cuban Studies, which opened in May/June 1972 in a Greenwich village loft on West 4th Street and Barrow. The Center has moved three times since then—a dramatic story which is told in detail on the Tidings podcast. CCS is now newly ensconced on West 29th Street, a bright, sunny loft that may be the next best thing on the East Coast to being in Cuba!

35 or more years have gone by since the Center for Cuban Studies came into being and yet nothing has much has changed. Their mission then as now was to reach opinion leaders, journalists, teachers and professionals, to inform and educate them about Cuba so that they in turn could broadcast it to their own audiences. A whole new generation has grown up since then but US policy has not changed and the same stunted view of Cuba prevails with very little new being taught in universities or written about in newspapers. What has changed however is a huge increase in good information, making it much easier, Sandy says, to channel it to the Center’s audiences.

Fluctuating Cuba policies implemented by the Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush administrations, with windows of opportunity for trade, travel and communication opening briefly before they were closed again, created unstable times for the Center. The lively travel program that had kept the place alive was now in jeopardy but, in her indefatigable drive to survive, Sandy drew on her Cuban art expertise, and, using the value she placed work that uniquely declares “I am Cuba”, was able to replace that revenue stream with an art gallery and an important collection of Cuban art.

Sandy’s thirty years of frequent travel to Cuba, her contacts, her vision and her journalist’s perspective help us to clarify the confusion and contradictions in our own views and to lift the veil so we can see Cuba as it really is. Please listen to her interview on Tidings from Hazel Kahan.

If you want to know more about the legal ways you can visit Cuba, please contact Sandy Levinson at 212-242-0559, visit the Center’s web site or visit the Center itself at 231 West 29th St., #401, NY 10001.

You can read my own impressions of Cuba "The Idea of Cuba".