Direction of travel raises hopes of US-Cuban détente

Academic exchanges back on the agenda as Obama relaxes visa laws. Sarah Cunnane reports

July 14, 2011

Credit: Desmond Boylan/Reuters
Have visa, will travel: Students from outside Cuba, including from the US, are accepted at the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana, which was established in 1999 by the former Cuban leader Fidel Castro

Cuba has a thriving higher education sector, yet academic exchanges with the US, its superpower neighbour, have been hamstrung by what some have seen as Washington's "politicisation" of travel regulations between the nations.

However, a change of direction is under way that promises benefits for both Cuban and US students.

Earlier this year, Barack Obama announced that the visa laws governing US citizens wanting to travel to Cuba for educational, cultural, religious and journalistic activities would be relaxed.

The decision is the latest in a series of moves that have seen the potential for academic exchange between the countries fluctuate since the US' decision to cut off diplomatic relations with the communist island state 50 years ago.

In April, the US Department of the Treasury released more information about what Obama's policy change will mean in practice for US universities and colleges.

Accredited institutions will be permitted to operate programmes in Cuba under a general licence, which will allow staff and students from the US to participate - but only if courses offer credits for undergraduate or postgraduate qualifications.

Last month, US-Cuban academic relations were the subject of a panel debate at the Nafsa: Association of International Educators' annual conference, this year held in Vancouver.

"Cuba has never been more interesting," says John Coatsworth, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.

"Most (Cuban) students, whatever they think of (Cuban leader) Fidel Castro or his brother Raoul, and as much as they are proud of their country, are impatient for long-overdue changes. It's an exciting process that our students can witness first-hand."

Coatsworth says that the reforms that are currently taking place in Cuba are going in "exactly the direction that the US for years has been demanding".

He predicts that any reforms ushered in under the Obama administration are likely to remain in place, regardless of which party's candidate triumphs in next year's US presidential election.

For this reason, Coatsworth says, senior management should not shy away from setting up academic exchanges with Cuba.

"If I had to bet - and I realise that most deans are not betting people - I don't think we are going to see a significant backtrack in the policy," he says.

"I think that no matter who my fellow citizens, in their good judgement, vote into the White House, the chance of this policy being reversed is practically nil."

Sceptics might argue that a presidential victory for a Tea Party-friendly candidate could bring that into question.

One step forward, two steps back

Things have not always been so promising for institutions wishing to open academic programmes with Cuba.

Travel restrictions to the country for educational exchanges were lifted in 1977 under the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

This freedom was short-lived, however, as the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 saw a re-emergence of American hostility towards Cuba.

This began to affect the US academy in 1982, when Reagan reinstated the travel ban to the island and prohibited US citizens from spending money there.

The travel policies now being implemented by the Obama administration are similar to those enacted under the presidency of Bill Clinton.

Although Clinton tightened the US' economic embargo of Cuba, he relaxed the harsh travel restrictions set by Reagan and continued under the presidency of George H.W. Bush.

The greatest blow to academic exchanges between the nations in recent years was struck by the travel embargo instituted by George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2004, the regulations imposed by the US government once again limited the number of academic, cultural and scientific exchanges between Cuba and the US.

The number of American students studying in Cuba, which had been rising rapidly since 2000 and reached a peak of 3 in 2003, dropped instantly to 20 after the policy was implemented.

Eric Popkin, associate professor of sociology and dean of summer programmes at Colorado College, says that the travel embargo was a major part of the difficulties US institutions have faced in their dealings with Cuba.

"US National Security doctrine radically transformed policy," he says. "As the number of international student exchanges lessened, the funding for international exchange programmes dropped notably and we witnessed greatly increased scrutiny of international travel, including students and faculty."

Popkin adds that this has led to "sharp declines" in the number of applications from students wishing to participate in exchange programmes between Cuba and the US.

But statistics from the University of Havana show why some have fought so hard to be able to take part in educational exchanges.

Cuba has a thriving higher education sector, with 63 universities and more than 21,000 academics (the island's overall population is about 11 million).

One out of every seven workers is a university graduate, and all new graduates in the country are guaranteed jobs upon leaving university.

Popkin says that the US government has used permission for travel to Cuba as a political tool to try to influence its inhabitants' attitudes towards market democracy.

"We're seeing the politicisation of travel and visa policy, with the attending government intrusion on freedom of thought and association," he laments.

Mayra Heydrich, coordinator of programmes with US universities at Havana, explains that greater freedom for academic collaboration could help the two nations build a better relationship through the exchange of cultural information.

"In an increasingly interdependent world, academic exchange recognises better understanding between different cultures and a vital need to advance the exchange of knowledge," she says.

Mixed messages

However, despite positive overtures from the Obama administration, problems with the system remain.

Regardless of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, "Cuba has not been removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism", Popkin says. "But what I noticed in Cuba from my last visit there is that there are new expressions of academic exchange possible."

Coatsworth says that vestiges of more stringent policy are still apparent.

He points in particular to the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which denies visas to anyone associated with the "trafficking" of US property expropriated by the state after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

He uses as an example a student whose uncle worked for a company that allegedly was using old telephone wires previously owned by the US before Castro seized power.

"Her visa application was denied," Coatsworth recalls.

"She was not able to study in this country for being a member of the family of an executive in a company that was using a piece of wire appropriated by the Cuban government."

Despite such cases, Coatsworth expects the situation to improve in time, although a change of attitude in the US Office of Foreign Assets Control may come slower than academics and administrators might like.

"Stay tuned," he advises. "It has a great deal on its plate and is understaffed. There is a change coming, and the floodgates should be opening soon."

John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, which promotes better relations between the US and a number of countries it has hitherto regarded as enemies, agrees that there are still some issues to address.

"We think there are a big mass of licences about to be granted, but so far not a single one has been," he says. "We're just waiting for all of the licensing that still has to come."

In the meantime, Popkin says, it is necessary for the US academy to maintain pressure on the Obama administration to make sure that the stated policy intentions become a political reality.

"I would urge Nafsa and other organisations to stay on top of and monitor these situations to move these regulations and guidelines forward," he says.

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