Will Cuba roll out the welcome mat for US students?

American universities review exchange programmes as 50-year embargo ends

January 15, 2015

Banging on their cutting tables with the flats of their tools, the torcedores in the Fábrica de Tabacos Francisco Donatien take a break from rolling the world’s best cigars to welcome a new group of trainees.

They know that these young apprentices, smiling nervously under a poster of Che Guevera holding a “stogie”, are the select few who will be allowed to join the proud fraternity of Cuban cigar-makers.

However, not only are Americans banned from buying Cuban cigars, without a special travel licence they cannot legally visit the factory in the tobacco-growing Pinar del Río region, west of Havana.

All that will change after US President Barack Obama’s announcement that diplomatic relations with Cuba will resume after 50 years of an economic embargo. The embargo did not ban Americans from going to Cuba but it prohibited them from spending money there, which has had the same effect.

The announcement has implications for trade and tourism, and there is now potential for growth in another area: academic exchanges.

“I’m guessing that there are a lot of meetings [to plan resuming study abroad programmes with Cuba]going on at campuses right now,” said Victor Johnson, senior adviser for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Mr Obama slightly relaxed some of the controls on academic travel to Cuba in 2011. But red tape still curtails the scope for actual exchange programmes and with US banks, credit-card companies and airlines not operating in Cuba, the logistics of exchange programmes are nigh on impossible. A total of 1,633 US students went to Cuba in 2012-13, the most recent period for which figures are available, according to the Institute of International Education, and only 76 Cuban students came to the US the same year.

“That’s bound to increase in both directions,” said Peter Hakim, emeritus president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based thinktank.

What’s still unknown, say Mr Hakim and other experts, is not whether the US government will make it easier for academics to go to Cuba, but how the Cuban government will respond.

“The question will be up to Cuba, how they regulate the comings and goings and will they want a large influx of American students?” said Mr Hakim, whose wife is Cuban.

“I would bet not, although they may be willing to take more than come now.” He added: “Almost everything [the Cuban government has] done up to now has been characterised by an effort to maintain central control, and I suspect that this will be the same with student visas.”

However, Cuban institutions and the government are likely to welcome the economic benefits of hosting US students, predicted Brian Whalen, president of The Forum on Education Abroad.

Some US universities are already considering starting or re-establishing exchanges.

“We’re open to the possibility if there is faculty and student interest,” said Amanda Kelso, executive director of the global education office for undergraduates at Duke University, which ran a Cuba scheme until 2004.

“Now hopefully more US students will be able to discover and more fully experience the intellect and art of Cuba enjoyed by the rest of the world,” Ms Kelso said.

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