Usted No Puede Ir

Wanna go to Cuba as a college student? Better start swimming. 
July 7, 2006

The choice of postsecondary institutions for students who fancy a trip to Havana has dwindled precipitously in the last two years because of tightened federal restrictions on study abroad programs to Cuba.

In September 2004, the Treasury Department released new guidelines for travel to Cuba that restricted study abroad to programs that last at least 10 weeks, include only students from the institution conducting the program, and are supervised by a full time employee. In other words, no adjuncts allowed. The rule changes -- which a group of scholars and students have filed a lawsuit to challenge -- stem from the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba's report to President Bush, released in May 2004. The report, led by then Secretary of State Colin Powell, recommended that short trips to Cuba be eliminated so that tourism masquerading as educational travel would not lend financial support to the Cuban government.

Experts estimated that, of several hundred Cuba programs that existed before the rule changes, fewer than a dozen remain.

Augsburg College in Minnesota apparently holds the distinction of being the first institution to actually pay a fine to the Treasury Department for travel to Cuba by its students. In May, the Treasury Department said that Augsburg had paid $9,000 for sending students to Cuba between 2000 and 2004 without a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control. College officials said they were told the license was not needed.

A search of Treasury Department records showed that, at least since 2003, Pace University was the only other institution of higher education that paid a Cuba-related fine. Pace forked over $5,600 in 2004 after, according to a university spokesman, students and faculty members booked a trip with a travel agency that had failed to obtain the proper licenses. The trip never happened. Molly Millerwise, a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department, said that the department does not comment on specific fines, but that she could not think of other fines to colleges or universities .

Even with their fine settled, though, Augsburg students and faculty members aren’t planning on any Havana nights any time soon.

Augsburg used to run student trips that would last for about one to three weeks, in which students might study anything from foreign relations to public health or Cuban music. Those trips are simply too short to meet the newer guidelines, and it’s “very difficult to find a core group of students to go to Cuba for a semester,” said Regina McGoff, associate director of Augsburg’s Center for Global Education.

Augsburg started its trips to Cuba in 1998, when travel to Cuba became legal, but it has been two years since the last trip, and new ones are unlikely. “It's done from our perspective,” McGoff said, “and, unfortunately, from most college’s perspectives.”

Some colleges and universities relied on gathering students from multiple colleges to get a large enough group to make a longer trip worthwhile financially. Butler University was one such institution. But, with the requirement that each institution must deal only with its own students, Butler’s program has been suspended indefinitely.

Not every institution, however, has given up. It’s unclear exactly how many programs still travel to Cuba, but numerous calls to colleges and experts revealed that programs still exist at, at least: American University, Hampshire College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Sarah Lawrence College, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and SUNY-Oswego.

Sarah Lawrence had to end some of its shorter trips, but 19 students will be headed to Havana for the fall semester. According to Prema Samuel, Sarah Lawrence’s director of international programs, the college has consistently had at least a dozen students willing to go to Cuba for a full semester, and the college doesn’t use adjuncts so there was no trouble finding full-time faculty members to go along. Sarah Lawrence, does, however have to apply for a new travel license every year, as opposed to every three years as was previously the case. Samuel said that, because the college can’t be sure if it will get a license each year, students are advised to have backup plans. “As far as [the U.S. government] is concerned, they’re saying, ‘we’re giving you the opportunity to have a program. Take it or leave it,’ ” Samuel said. “We’re taking it.”

Johns Hopkins University, on the other hand, is leaving it. Wayne Smith, an adjunct professor of Latin American studies at Hopkins, used to take 15-25 students to Cuba for three or four weeks between semesters or in the summer. There are not 10 weeks between semesters, though, and Smith said that not as many students are willing to go to Cuba for 10 weeks in the summer. Additionally, because Smith is an adjunct, he can no longer lead the trips, despite the fact that he is obviously an expert, having served as director of Cuban affairs for the State Department from 1977-79, a post he left to become the top American diplomat to Cuba.

“During the Cold War, we pushed the idea of academic exchanges with the Soviet Union,” Smith said. “The idea was that you could strip through their iron curtain by sending students. Why is that not true of Cuba?”

Smith is one of the few individually named plaintiffs in a case brought by several faculty members and students, as well as a group of about 450 academics called the Emergency Coalition to Defend Education Travel, against the Treasury Department.

The lawsuit, filed in June, alleges that the 2004 changes violate the four essential freedoms of a university -- “to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study” -- as outlined by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in 1957.

Robert L. Muse, a lawyer for the academics, questioned the legitimacy of the government’s attempt to keep adjunct professors out of Cuba as a method of economic sanction. “You begin to wonder when the laugh test has to be employed,” Muse said.

Religious groups, in addition to colleges, have faced diminishing travel opportunities to Cuba. Augsburg, which is a Lutheran college, tried, and failed, to qualify for a travel license as a religious organization. Religious trips are now confined to four per year, and a pre-determined list of a maximum of 25 travelers must be lined up far in advance, according to Mavis Anderson, senior associate at the Latin American Working Group, which pushes U.S. policies that promote human rights and sustainable development in Latin America.

Muse expects the government to respond to the complaint in early fall. Until then, short-term educational trips to Cuba are “in a holding pattern,” Smith said.


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