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SAN DIEGO -- There’s no place like Cuba, at least as far as study abroad is concerned.

That was a main takeaway of a session here at the NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference on things U.S. universities should consider in offering study abroad programs in Cuba. 

Study abroad to Cuba only recently began to rebound, after President Obama released guidelines relaxing Bush-era restrictions on academic travel to Cuba in 2011. The 2011 regulations provide blanket authorization for accredited universities to operate credit-bearing study abroad programs in Cuba under a “general” license, while third-party study abroad providers can apply for “specific” licenses from the U.S. Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control. 

          Source: Institute of International Education, Open Doors

Academic Programs International was the first third-party study abroad provider to receive a specific license to operate study abroad programs in March of last year.

"Running a program in Cuba is unlike running a program in any other country,” said Jennifer Attal Allen, Academic Programs International's executive director. “You’ll need full understanding of the OFAC regulations, a commitment to being up to date on the Cuban climate, willingness to be guided and managed by your Cuban hosts, flexibility, patience and perseverance and, finally, attention to detail.”

Among the many details Allen discussed in her presentation on Wednesday were

  • Bringing materials and equipment into Cuba: “We haven’t had a problem bringing personal computers, pen drives, printers, international cell phones, cameras,” Allen said. “By and large students can bring and your directors can bring pretty much anything they need to run the program." She noted that API once had a problem bringing in a ream of paper, which Cuban authorities inspected to check that nothing was printed on it. 
  • Entry visas: Cuba suspended its consular services in Washington in February because it couldn’t find an American bank willing to handle its accounts. “You must have a very good contact in Cuba to make sure that you can get your visas. All of our summer programs are running, our fall programs are running, we’re pretty sure that our spring programs will run, but all of the visas, the process is taking place in Cuba instead of through the D.C. office," Allen said.
  • Health and emergency planning: U.S. health insurance is not accepted and all U.S. citizens are required to have a Cuban health insurance plan, Allen said. She added that because of unreliability of the communications systems, it’s all the more important to have a good emergency action plan.
  • Money: Allen said it’s important to declare any cash you're carrying before you leave the U.S. “For operations in Cuba, more often than not, you have to carry cash,” Allen said, explaining that while there are ways to do bank transfers through third countries they can be held up for weeks. U.S. credit cards won't work.
  • Returning to the U.S.: “You must return with an authorization letter. We provide all of our students with their letter when they depart the U.S. because they have to have it upon departure. We always issue a backup that our [resident directors] keep in case the students lose theirs because they have to have it upon return as well.” Returnees are limited to bringing back educational and cultural goods, such as books. Cigars: not so much.
  • Receipts: "You must have receipts or all expenses you have while in Cuba," Allen stressed. "That doesn’t just apply to the program; it applies to your students as well. They must keep the receipts and be able to account for every single expense that they had. It’s always a good idea to take your own receipt book because paper is in short supply there so that you can provide a receipt for the restaurant and the taxi driver to fill out and to sign. They must sign the receipt. It's not for the IRS, it’s for OFAC. You must keep those for five years.”

Allen emphasized the need to stay closely apprised of what's happening in Cuba. “What you think you know about Cuba may change tomorrow,” she said. “What we’ve found particularly helpful is to have our on-site director in Cuba 12 months out of the year, they keep us abreast of all the current shortages, fresh milk for example now... anything that is going on there, they let us know exactly what the situation is.” 

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