Colleges jumping at chance to visit Cuba

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By Ana Radelat, Capitol News Connection.

This article appeared in The Gazette on Jan. 23.

WASHINGTON – Most Americans are barred from traveling to Cuba, but Iowa college students soon may be packing their bags to visit the island. President Barack Obama’s recent decision to ease travel restrictions for academics and church groups prompted Iowa’s colleges to plan new programs for study in Cuba.

The University of Iowa even had several proposals ready. Janis Perkins, assistant dean of the UI International Studies Program, said the university has been waiting for Obama to ease travel rules since the president was sworn into office.

“We’re ready to go to Cuba as soon as we can,” Perkins said.

The UI hopes to sponsor a culture and language program in Havana during the school’s next winter break. There also are discussions about holding an Afro-Cuban drum and dance workshop in Cuba and perhaps a global health program.

“Over time students have asked to go, and I’ve had to say, ‘No, we can’t do it.’ Now we’re poised and ready,” Perkins said.

Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa also are hoping to hold programs in Cuba. Iowa and Iowa State sponsored trips to Cuba under former President Bill Clinton’s ‘people-to-people’ policy, which encouraged purposeful contacts between Cubans and Americans while keeping a ban on tourism travel. Former President Bush tightened travel rules to Cuba in 2004, and most academic trips to the island stopped.

Trevor Nelson, director of the study abroad program at Iowa State, said Americans should travel to Cuba to learn more about the island.

“There’s a lot of misinformation about the country, and it’s just 90 miles away from us,” Nelson said. “We need to know a great deal more about our neighbor.” Obama seems to agree.

On Jan. 14, the White House announced that accredited universities could sponsor trips to Cuba without asking the government’s permission. So could religious organizations.

Other proposed changes include:

- Universities will be able to sponsor workshops and conferences in Cuba.

- Non-academic groups will be able to sponsor Cuban conferences but will have to apply to the Treasury Department for a license to do so.

- Americans will be able to send up to $2,000 a year to Cubans who aren’t government of ficials.

- Airports will be able to apply for direct charter flights to Cuba. Currently, only airports in New York, Miami and Los Angeles are authorized to do so. Regulations detailing the White House’s changes to the Cuban embargo are expected to be announced in the Federal Register in the next few weeks.

“We see these changes, in combination with the continuation of the embargo, as a way to enhance civil society in Cuba,” said an administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He said increased contact between Cubans and Americans would make the Cuban people less dependent on their government.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., a Cuban-American lawmaker who supports the embargo, said Obama’s changes “will not help foster a prodemocracy environment in Cuba.”

“These changes will not aid in ushering in respect for human rights, and they certainly will not help the Cuban people free themselves from the tyranny that engulfs them,” she said.

Before Obama announced his changes, only certain groups of Americans could freely travel to Cuba. Those included journalists, government officials and farmers seeking sales of food or agricultural products to Cuba. Food sales to Cuba are allowed under a 2000 law.

The Greater Des Moines Partnership has taken two delegations of Iowa farmers and government officials to Cuba and lobbied for greater opportunities for trade with the island.

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