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In Response to ‘ASA’s Delegation to Cuba’

1 October 2013 103 views No Comment

The ASA recently sponsored a trip to Cuba, led by its president. An “ASA all-volunteer group,” Statistics Without Borders, is planning to provide pro-bono instructors for a summer institute in North Korea (unless the project has been cancelled because of the recent rise in tensions).

Of all of the places that might benefit from statistical expertise, why do we choose two states whose governments are declared enemies of the United States? Why send experts to countries where academic freedom is nonexistent and whose statisticians would risk their lives if they reported data or drew conclusions at variance with state propaganda? Why allow totalitarian governments to gain the positive publicity and the thousands of dollars in hard currency per visitor these trips will produce?

In North Korea, foreigners are followed by state security officials, and some have been arrested and held hostage. North Korea’s price for releasing two jailed journalists in 2009 was a state visit by former President Clinton.

As one example of the many human rights violations committed by the Cuban government, there is the continuing imprisonment for “improper use of state-owned materials” of a Cuban physician whose crime was releasing a statistical study of abortions in Cuba to the foreign press. Many more examples can be found in the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s “Directory of Persecuted Scientists, Health Professionals, and Engineers”.

Why are we undertaking these initiatives? The North Korean trip might be a naïve continuation of failed appeasement policies, in which North Korea, in return for immediate aid, makes promises it has no intention of keeping. Travel to Cuba and trade with Cuba are normally prohibited, but the ASA trip presumably falls within the exception for “licensed trips involving cultural or educational exchanges.”

I sense that most missions to Cuba are an expression of opposition to current travel and trade restrictions. While individual members of the ASA are free to oppose longstanding U.S. policies, these are inappropriate goals for the ASA as an organization. Regardless of its goals or motives, the ASA is lending a veneer of legitimacy to regimes that view statistics as a tool of state propaganda.

Malcolm J. Sherman
University at Albany, SUNY

Response from ASA Executive Director Ron Wasserstein

I appreciate Dr. Sherman’s note and am glad he expressed his perspective. The Statistics Without Borders project in North Korea was cancelled. ASA President Marie Davidian’s column in the August issue of Amstat News clearly showed the focus of the Cuba trip was interaction with Cuban statisticians. It was not in any way a protest of policy, as Dr. Sherman suggests.

Regarding his assertion that the ASA trip lends legitimacy to the government, I see and respect his point of view, but I disagree. The development of collegial relationships with Cuban statisticians is not an act in support of the Cuban government. I further note that hundreds of groups are visiting Cuba each year under current U.S. policy, developing the same sorts of collegial relationships.

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