By Rishabh R. Jain, The Daily Iowan 
The University of Iowa is opening gates for students to attend a study-abroad program in Cuba this winter.
This latest inclusion in the destinations offered by the UI Office for Study Abroad came after President Obama decided to ease regulations on sponsored trips to Cuba by accredited universities and religious organizations in January.
Limits on study-abroad programs were first put in place in 2004 by then-President George W. Bush.
The two-week program will run during winter break and will cost students $4,500. Some 13 to 14 students have confirmed their enrollment in the program, which partners with Cuba Tours and Travel in Cuba.
Leslie McNeilus, a UI Study Abroad adviser and program coordinator, said students in the program can chose from two different writing courses — travel writing and ethnographic essay.
She said she is excited to see the program finally get launched.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for students to be able to learn from and be inspired by the culture, history, and atmosphere of Cuba,” she said.
Robin Hemley, the director of the Nonfiction Writing Program, said the country has long been a sought-after destination for writers.
“For me, the whole world is an appropriate destination for a writer. I was there in July, scouting for this program …” he said. “Cuba is a country that we have a long history of relationship with, dating back to the Spanish-American War.”
Hemley, who spearheaded the program, said the longtime restrictions on travel to the country adds to its allure.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for students to be able to learn from and be inspired by the culture, history, and atmosphere of Cuba.”
But despite the eased restrictions, UI political-science Associate Professor Brian Lai said U.S.-Cuba relations are “still not very good.”
“Cuba still has many internal policies that the U.S. is very critical of,” he said. “The U.S. is trying to take small steps to improve relations with Cuba, but we just haven’t seen the type of policy changes that we would like.”
Lai said foreign relations have improved slightly recently.
He cited the U.S. allowance of up to $2,000 a year in remittance to Cuba as one of the “small steps” toward improved relations.
UI sophomore Tony Tran, an English major, said he is slightly surprised the university chose Cuba over other destinations, such as Ireland or England, but he thinks Cuba “as unexpected as it is, is pretty out there and a neat location.”
With the slowly mending U.S.-Cuba relations, UI officials intend to maintain all safety precautions, much as with any Study Abroad program, McNeilus said.
“Safety will definitely be at the forefront of all planned activities and excursions in Cuba,” she said. “Part of our partner organization’s role is to provide the necessary guides and information to keep students safe throughout the trip.”