Obama Eases Cuba Rules

January 17, 2011

WASHINGTON -- President Obama on Friday lifted a series of rules imposed by the Bush administration that have eliminated the ability of most American colleges to run exchange programs in Cuba.

Lifting these rules has been a major goal of educators who promote study abroad. Victor C. Johnson, senior adviser for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, called the move "a very big deal" in that "our colleges once again will be able to exercise whatever free choice they want to make about whether students can study in Cuba or not."

An October letter from college and university presidents, organized by NAFSA, cited statistics showing that only about 250 students from the United States are currently able to study in Cuba each year. That compares to about 2,100 before the Bush administration imposed the rules that are now being lifted. Reverting to a system similar to the rules in place during the Clinton administration will mean the following changes:

  • American colleges wanting to set up credit programs in Cuba will have to follow certain "general" rules but will not need a special license from the U.S. Treasury Department to do so. Obtaining those licenses has been difficult, and Johnson noted that many colleges have complained that they may be approved one year and denied the next, or that they can't get any decision on their applications -- and that as a result many colleges stopped trying to set up programs.
  • American colleges will be allowed to involve adjunct faculty members in their programs, which they have been barred from doing. This restriction has prevented colleges from working with scholars with unique academic expertise about Cuba who may not be on their permanent faculties.
  • American colleges with Cuba programs will again be able to enroll students from other colleges in those programs -- which is crucial since most colleges will still not likely set up programs in Cuba, but may have students who want to study there.
  • Institutions wanting to set up non-credit programs will be able to do so. While they will have to seek a special license from the Treasury Department, the rules will presume approval for legitimate efforts.

Johnson said he wasn't sure how quickly American academic programs would grow in Cuba. Many institutions were frustrated that programs they built up were forced to close, and the option to go back is coming "in a different budgetary climate" than existed previously, Johnson noted. But he said that "there is clearly interest" and that he expected many colleges to move ahead.

Already at least one study abroad program has announced plans to go back to Cuba. The Institute for Study Abroad at Butler University issued a statement saying that as soon as the rules are finalized, the university will restart a program at the University of Havana. Butler says that in the 2003-4 academic year, prior to the Bush administration's move to curtail programs in Cuba, the university's program was the largest single one from the United States in Cuba, with 133 students.

President Obama does not need Congressional approval to change the rules, but the U.S. politics of ties to Cuba are complicated -- and it is probably not a coincidence that the announcement came late on a Friday before a long weekend. Many Democratic leaders in Congress have endorsed some loosening of limits on ties to Cuba, making arguments similar to those offered by educators: as Cuba approaches a post-Castro era, more exposure for Cubans to American students and institutions would help both countries and could promote democracy in Cuba.

Republicans, however, have generally argued that these programs can't be justified as long as they bring any dollars into Cuba. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who is chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, quickly denounced the new rules Friday night. Her statement said: "These changes undermine U.S. foreign policy and security objectives and will bring economic benefits to the Cuban regime."

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