Forbidden Cuba now open to students

This article, which appeared in The Brown and White, a student newspaper at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, mentions the well-establish study abroad programs at The University of Iowa.

By Kathryn Suma

Lehigh students, along with college students across the country, are now able to visit the one island previously off limits to Americans – the once forbidden Cuba is now an option for study abroad.

On Jan. 14, the Obama administration lifted the restrictions on college study abroad programs to Cuba. In 2004, President George W. Bush put limits on college students traveling to the island, but now new programs will be created, and old programs can be restored for interested students.

The U.S. has not decided if tourism or vacationing in Cuba will be an option any time soon, so college students are among the few who get the chance to visit the country at this time.

“The new regulations open up the door for a better knowledge of the situation in Cuba by U.S. students and academics,” said Antonio Prieto, director of Latin American Studies and a native Cuban. “The change is a throw back to the status quo before the Bush administration, where academic travel was indeed exempt from the economic embargo against Cuba.”

The Office for Study Abroad at the University of Iowa is creating a winter program in Cuba that would be its first program back in the country. Its newspaper also reports its hope to have an official Cuban program by next year.

The only problem at Lehigh is it has never had strong programs such as the one at University of Iowa in the past, so it would need a large interest to develop anything new.

“Here at Lehigh, we haven’t had a strong student or faculty push/interest in going to Cuba in the past or currently,” said Katie Welsh Radande, associate director of International Programs. “Should we receive such interest, we would look into options/possibilities and issues to be considered.”

Katie Costello, ’14, said she doesn’t believe studying in Cuba would be of interest to her.

“I would have to turn down the opportunity to go to Cuba if it were offered as a study abroad destination,” she said. “Although I am minoring in Spanish and would love the opportunity to travel to a Spanish-speaking country, I would feel more secure spending time in a well-established and secure location – a place where Lehigh students have been travelling to for years.”

However, Prieto said he believes there will be students who will begin to express an interest in studying in Cuba because of the regulation changes.

“We have at least two courses dedicated solely to Cuba, one in sociology and one in Spanish,” he said. “In the past, I had students in my course on Cuba travel there after taking the course.”

Twenty-seven universities, including the University of Iowa, signed a letter with the Association of International Educators in October of 2010, asking President Barack Obama to allow students to travel academically to Cuba. This push from many academic institutions has fueled the legislature change, but politicians believe the change is really for Obama to win the 2012 Florida vote.

An argument from many Cuban exiles is that it is wrong for students to travel to the country until the Castro family government is gone. They believe that by traveling there, the U.S. is just giving money to “Castro’s regime.” However, many professors counter that argument by saying they are instead simply allowing for interaction of college students with the history and people of a different country.

Prieto sides with the second group and has an entirely positive outlook on the new regulations.

“I would most certainly recommend it,” he said. “Not only would it help the Cuban people by bringing much-needed economic resources, but it would also expose the students to a unique political system in Latin America and to a vibrant culture, not to mention the warmth of the Cuban people and the natural beauty of the island.”

Mark Schied, president of Butler University’s Institute for Study Abroad, agreed that the important factor in this decision is not money.

“I don’t think you’re going to find that putting college kids on campus in Havana is going to make a significant impact on the island’s economy,” he said.

According to the Student Free Press Association, Scheid and Butler University sent 130 students to Cuba in 2003, all of whom were required to be fluent in Spanish. This trip provided a great experience for the students, and he argued that it is more important than everyone’s worries about students helping the Cuban economy.

“I think the benefits for both countries far outweigh the negative, if there are any, of putting college students together,” Scheid said.

Roger Noriega, the former ambassador to the Organization of American States, argues another negative aspect of the new regulations. Noriega said the 2004 limitations on study abroad in Cuba were put it place to prevent cases where students would attend a seminar or course in Cuba in order to just go partying in the capital of Havana. He said students weren’t using the country as an educational trip, but instead for partying vacations.

Although no one is sure just yet what will happen with these new programs, the general feel is that students will go for their genuine interest in the country, and not the partying scene it provides.

Lehigh will not have its own program until interest is sparked, but it does support third-party program providers who have sent students to Cuban programs in the past and hope to start them up again.

“We work with The Center for Cross-Cultural Study to send students on semester programs in Seville, Spain and also for our Lehigh in Spain winter program,” Welsh Radande said.

That company expects to have the new license with the government in place by summer 2011 allowing Lehigh students could be enjoying the history and culture of Havana, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

 

 

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