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American Students Launch 10-Week Study

American Students Launch 10-Week Study
Of Cuba Under New U.S. Regulations

When Veronica Sanchez’s parents found out she was going to Cuba for 10 weeks, they “freaked out” and worried she would become a communist, the 19-year-old Mexican-American student said.

“My dad really has it in his head that I’m never going to go back home,” she said. “He thinks I’m going to love it here.”

Worried parents, steep prices and a stricter U.S. travel ban were among the obstacles Sanchez and nine other University of California, Davis, students had to overcome to become one of the first groups of Americans to travel to Cuba under new, restrictive U.S. regulations.

The rules, implemented last summer by the Bush administration, require all study trips to last at least 10 weeks — purportedly to cut down on tourism under academic pretenses and to make sure students experience more than just white-sand beaches and salsa concerts.

But critics say the purpose of the changes is to make it harder for Americans to get to Cuba, and that the vast majority of academic groups that traveled there focused on seeing Fidel Castro’s socialist system firsthand — not on visiting the island’s beaches.

The UC Davis students, who arrived Jan. 2, each had to pay US $10,000 for a 2 1/2-month extensive study program.

The students said the longer time-period allows them to see past the Cuban government propaganda and get a true sense of life on the island. But, they say, the lengthier stay also allows them to discern contradictions in U.S. policy toward Cuba and witness harmful effects the trade embargo has on Cubans.

“On paper, this place looks good,” said Gabe Feinberg, 25, a political science student. “But seeing that all the money and the tourism has created an upper class and the rest of the people are still pretty much at poverty level — it was a bit disillusioning.”

Yet Feinberg says he strongly disagrees with U.S. policy toward Cuba.

“The embargo is completely hypocritical,” he said. “The U.S. stance is it’s a communist regime, and they don’t do business with communist regimes, but we do plenty of business with China. Obviously there’s more to it than that.”

Naomi Voosen, whose father is a staunch Republican, was concerned about her trip to Cuba, also questioned the trade sanctions.

“What is the rationale?” the 25-year-old asked. “I feel like it’s really related to a huge Cuban American population in Florida, and they want an embargo so we have one.” Cuban Americans were a vital electoral bloc courted by Bush in this year’s campaign for Florida.

The students will study topics including race and gender issues, the Cuban political structure, housing, music, baseball and community health.

Under one of the few exceptions to the 10-week rule, American graduate students doing independent research can do so for shorter periods. A group from Harvard University recently left Havana after a weeklong visit.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy imposed economic sanctions against Cuba in 1963 during the Cold War, with the aim of isolating the Cuban government economically and depriving it of U.S. dollars. Forty years later, Bush has sought more stringent enforcement of provisions forbidding most travel here.

A report issued last year by the U.S. Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba complained that most trips by American students are heavily controlled by Cuban state security officials and also denounced travelers and academic institutions that abuse U.S. licenses by engaging in “disguised tourism.”

—  Associated Press

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