U.S. Colleges look toward Cuba

Capital News Connection:

WASHINGTON – Most Americans are barred from traveling to Cuba, but the nation’s college students may soon be packing their bags to visit the island.

President Barack Obama’s recent decision to ease travel restrictions for academics and church groups prompted many of the nation’s colleges to plan new programs for study in Cuba.

Janis Perkins, assistant dean of the University of Iowa’s international studies program, said her school 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 University of Iowa hopes to sponsor a culture and language program in Havana during the school’s next winter break. There are also 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.

The University of Iowa sponsored trips to Cuba under former President Clinton’s “people-to-people” policy that encouraged “purposeful” contacts between Cubans and Americans while keeping a ban on tourism travel. But former President Bush tightened travel rules to Cuba in 2004, and most academic trips to the island stopped.

Indiana’s Butler University sent hundreds of American students to the University of Havana to study advanced Spanish before it was forced to end its program in 2004.

The school is now hoping to start up its Cuba program again.

“It falls within our mission, which is to provide meaningful academic and cultural opportunities abroad,” said Joanna Holvey-Bowles, executive vice president of the university’s study abroad program.

Trevor Nelson, director of the study abroad program at Iowa State University, 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 officials

-Airports will be able to apply to host 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 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.

But Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., a Cuban American lawmaker who supports the embargo, said Obama’s changes “will not help foster a pro-democracy 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 include journalists, government officials and farmers seeking sales of food or agricultural products to Cuba. Food sales to Cuba are allowed under a 2000 law.