Academic Exchanges with Cuba: The Impact of Recent U.S. Policy Changes

By Barberia, Lorena | International Educator, March/April 2005 | Go to article overview

Academic Exchanges with Cuba: The Impact of Recent U.S. Policy Changes


Barberia, Lorena, International Educator


U.S. POLICIES TOWARD DIRECT CIVILIAN CONTACTS with Cuba have been significantly tightened in recent years as part of the George W. Bush administration's concerted efforts to further exert pressure to bring about regime change on the island. This offensive affects regulations that allow educational exchanges between countries only 90 miles apart from each other. U.S. universities and colleges that have maintained ongoing academic exchange programs for several years with Cuba are finding that escalating restrictions on academic exchanges have imposed difficult, but not insurmountable, challenges.

Two Decades of U.S.-Cuba Academic Exchanges

The latest tightening of U.S. policies toward the island nation is a continuation of a U.S. policy that has sought the demise of the Castro government for more than four decades. At times, U.S. presidents have slightly loosened these restrictions. The gradual opening of academic exchanges between the countries slowly came about in the late 1970s, aided by negotiations between the Carter administration and the Cuban government aimed at improving bilateral relations.1 These exchanges gradually increased so that by 1989, the year of the collapse of the island's trade with the Soviet Union, 1,500 U.S. travelers in 95 groups were visiting the island, some through educational exchanges.2

In the early 1990s, U.S. policies toward direct contact between civilians in both countries were tightened. In response to the 1994 crisis sparked by the exodus of more than 35,000 Cuban rafters and the shooting down of two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft by the Cuban military in 1996. In 1994, President Clinton banned direct flights to Cuba and introduced enhanced restrictions to the Cuban Assets and Control regulations requiring academics to apply for special licenses approved on a case-by-case basis. While the Clinton administration slightly loosened these policies in 1995 allowing U.S. undergraduates to travel to Cuba for the first time in more than three decades, it then banned direct flights to Cuba in 1996.

In 1999, the Clinton administration reversed its earlier hard-line stance and introduced policies to enhance people-to-people exchanges, including initiatives directed at promoting two-way interactions among academics and scientists. In spite of restrictions in U.S. policy, visits between both countries surged and academic exchanges grew both in number and scope during the 1990s. During that decade, a significant number of U.S. institutions, including universities and colleges, initiated activities with Cuba, site of one of the earliest universities in the Americas.

This sharp increase in bilateral academic exchanges coincided with what would be one of the most dramatic decades of Cuba's history. The country was grappling with the extraordinary shock of the breakup of the Soviet Union and its impact on Cuban productivity and welfare. As the Cuban economy began to slowly and gradually recover, academics would seek to better understand the implications of this experience for Cuba's economic strategy and social development, as well as the impact of the successive tightening of the U.S. embargo through the enactment of the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act (CDA) and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act.

One such academic exchange program was started by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) at Harvard University. Since its founding in 1994, the Center has prioritized finding ways to overcome the many obstacles that impeded scholarly collaboration. In the last 10 years, DRCLAS has hosted more than 50 Cuban visiting scholars for extended periods of research and collaboration in fields as diverse as archival preservation, economics, history, tropical medicine, political science, public administration, and public health in the last 10 years. Each year during the last decade, the number of Harvard faculty and students traveling to Cuba for research or other educational activities has increased.

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