Still a No-go for Lifting Academic Travel Restrictions to Cuba

El Malecón, the seawall in Havana, Cuba

Policy experts, study abroad groups, and Latin American studies researchers are more hopeful now than ever that opening up academic travel to Cuba is imminent, although President Barack Obama has yet to make good on campaign promises to rescind Bush administration academic travel restrictions.

“We’re taking it step by step, seeing if, as we change some of the old approaches that we’ve been taking in the past, we are seeing some movement on the Cuban government side. I don’t think it’s going to be happening overnight. I think it’s going to be a work in progress,” said Obama in July, referencing government-to-government conversations.

In April, the president reversed Bush administration limits on family travel, remittances and telecommunications with the island nation, giving many international education advocates hope that things might be headed in a new direction.

Dr. Victor Johnson, the senior advisor for public policy at the National Association of Foreign Students Advisers (NAFSA), says, “We, of course, opposed Bush’s policies in 2004. They essentially outsourced their Cuba policy to the hard-line Miami Cuban community. When Obama was inaugurated, there were communications with his White House team [on opening academic travel].”

In anticipation of the new academic year, NAFSA sent a letter to President Obama on behalf of 18 policy and education groups insisting he ease regulations on academic travel to Cuba. Only slightly more than 200 students had the opportunity to study abroad in Cuba in 2006-07, compared with the more than 2,100 who did three years earlier, according to NAFSA.

The Bush administration barred short-term study trips to Cuba and prohibited colleges from sponsoring trips and accepting students from other schools for those programs. It also specified that only full-time tenured faculty members could lead study abroad trips to Cuba.

Under the Obama administration, however, lifting travel restrictions to the embargoed country has taken a back seat to more pressing issues such as economic policy and health care reform.

Jerry Guidera, director of the Center for Cross-Cultural Study, which ran study abroad programs to Cuba from 1996 to 2004, says, “We were fairly optimistic that we could resume programs by this fall. By May, June, we figured it wasn’t going to happen that fast.”

While there are only about a dozen licensed colleges running study abroad programs to Cuba, Guidera says licensing has become more relaxed. He also points to subtle changes in this diplomatic tango between enemy nations. “Through our counsel and other people we’ve talked to in [Washington,] D.C., we know that loosening academic travel is one of the options on the table vis-à-vis Cuba.”

Dr. John Coatsworth, president of the Latin American Studies Association, says he has been encouraged that there will be a reverse of “counterproductive policies by opening up conversations on common issues quietly.”

Coatsworth, who is also dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, visited Cuba earlier this year and says government officials are showing more commitment to pragmatism and economic reform, especially in light of the global recession.

“I think this is a terrifically important moment in Cuban relations and in U.S.-Cuban relations,” he says. “If the Obama administration is careful and intelligent in the way they move, then real change could come to Cuba in a matter of years.”

Like Coatsworth, Dr. Felix Masud-Piloto, a professor of history at DePaul University, says regulations have impinged the academic freedom of Latin American studies scholars.

Addressing Obama’s handling of the Cuba issue, Masud-Piloto says, “I am fairly disappointed. I expected a lot from him. It will cost him nothing politically.” He references a recent Florida International University poll that indicated that 55 percent of Cuban-Americans oppose continuing the decades-old embargo that the United States has maintained against Cuba.

Nevertheless, Masud-Piloto remains undaunted.

“We’re trying to establish a semester-long program [in Havana],” he says.

Masud-Piloto also hopes to do more to promote change by participating in CubaGo!, a national day of action where community leaders, educators and activists will descend on Capitol Hill to urge their representatives to support a bill that would lift all travel restrictions.

Sponsored by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Latin America Working Group, the national day of action scheduled for Sept. 30 has received record levels of interest and energy from grassroots activists across the country, according to WOLA Program Officer for Cuba Policy Lilia López. Facing a tougher economy this year than in years past, WOLA encourages supporters to express their support for the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act or a Senate version of the bill via phone-ins.

The House bill has significant bipartisan support, but López says, “I don’t think anyone has a set timetable in mind for when things will move forward.”

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