Cuba: A Door Ajar
By Eric Platt, The New York Times
Thousands of American college students have been effectively locked out of Cuba since 2004, when the Bush administration tightened restrictions on travel for academic, cultural and religious purposes. Cuba was then the third most popular study-abroad destination in Latin America (after Mexico and Costa Rica); 2,148 United States residents studied there in 2003-4. The number plunged 92 percent in just a year.
In January, President Obama announced he was relaxing the restrictions, opening the way for expanded opportunities to study in this Communist island nation. Among restrictions was a requirement for a special license from the Treasury Department, with an application process that was lengthy and difficult to navigate. Now programs can run under 10 weeks. That’s no small change: 56 percent of students studying abroad go on trips less than eight weeks long or during winter and summer break. Most important, students can participate in programs run by institutions other than their own.
Only 251 Americans studied in Cuba in 2008-9, according to the Institute of International Education’s most recent survey. Most institutions formed partnerships with the University of Havana.
Last year, several dozen colleges and universities signed a letter asking the White House to lift the restrictions and expressing interest in starting or expanding programs in time for the 2011-12 school year. The University of Iowa, for one, hopes to restart a winter program that it last ran in 2004, while Tulane is planning to start a short session to supplement its semester program.
Sarah Lawrence College operates the largest program. Students concentrate in the humanities and arts, particularly film. Participants must take a course on Cuban culture and have mastered Spanish, as classes are taught in the native tongue.
Michelle Huber was eager to experience the social laboratory that is Cuba, and spent last semester there with 15 Sarah Lawrence classmates. “The way Cuba was presented to me was ideal,” she says. “Health care for all, education for all. And I said to myself, ‘I need to know what a country like that is like.’ ”
And the reality? “It’s just so different when everyone is treated the same way and given the same resources,” she says. “Everyone gets something there, but it’s averaged down.” She likes to tell the story of a student who sprained her ankle, and had to hobble around the island for the three months. She couldn’t find crutches.