Obama plans to relax limits on academic travel to Cuba

Campaigners claim the ban was introduced for domestic political gain. Jon Marcus reports

September 2, 2010

Days after a coalition of US higher education organisations called for restrictions on academic exchanges with Cuba to be relaxed, the Obama administration has signalled that such programmes will be allowed to resume, although no timetable has been given.

Academic travel by Americans to Cuba was all but shut down by former president George W. Bush in response to the 2003 arrests of 75 Cuban political dissidents.

New restrictions forced 47 of 61 US institutions with academic exchanges to Cuba to suspend them, including Duke, The George Washington and Purdue universities.

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to review these rules and, as president, has loosened the restrictions on remittances of currency to Cubans from relatives living in the US. But restrictions on academic travel are still in force and 14 higher education and international affairs organisations have again appealed for them to be lifted.

"Once we got wind that this issue was back on the table, we just wanted to make sure they remembered we were here - and that these restrictions don't serve any purpose for our country," said Victor Johnson, senior adviser on public policy at Nafsa: Association of International Educators, which led the campaign.

Although the government did not give a formal response, The New York Times has since reported that the Obama administration plans to relax the many limits on academic travel to Cuba. Details of the changes are likely to take months to work out.

President Bush imposed the restrictions after the Cuban dissidents were jailed, but critics have pointed out that many of the prisoners have since been released and that Cuba has promised to free the rest. It was also observed that the crackdown coincided with the presidential election, in which Florida, where many Cuban exiles live, was a key battleground between President Bush and his Democratic challenger, John Kerry.

Restrictions do not hurt Cuba

"The thing you have to understand about Cuba policy in the US is that there isn't one. Cuba policy is about domestic politics," said Dr Johnson, who is former staff director of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs and chairman of the Washington Office on Latin America.

"Although it's couched in this rhetoric, they weren't really doing it to hurt the Cuban government. They were doing it because of domestic political considerations. And it worked. Bush won Florida in 2004."

The rule changes required that students who went to Cuba would have to stay for at least 10 weeks and could travel only with full-time employees of their own institutions.

Because most Cuban exchanges lasted for less than 10 weeks, and many students went to Cuba with host institutions other than the universities at which they were enrolled, the restrictions effectively ended almost all academic travel to Cuba.

Dr Johnson dismissed the argument, made by activists in the Cuban exile community at the time, that academic exchanges benefited the Cuban economy.

"We've tried to cut off all kinds of things for 50 years and the regime is still there, so obviously it isn't doing a whole lot of damage," he said.

"Given that every other country in the world permits all kinds of travel to Cuba, there's a limited degree that we can hurt them by cutting off these contacts."

Besides, he said, "the last thing the regime wants is a bunch of American students running around the island. We're not doing this for them. We're doing it for ourselves. We're doing it so our schools aren't subject to a limitation by our government that says there's one country in the world to which we can't send our students to study. We only hurt ourselves by imposing these restrictions."

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