VANCOUVER, B.C. – When the Obama administration announced a relaxation of restrictions on academic travel to Cuba  in January -- a move long lobbied for by international education professionals -- initial excitement gave way to questions of what this policy change would mean in practice. Not surprisingly, these questions are of widespread interest at this year’s NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference, where two sessions Tuesday focused on the state of scholarly and student exchange with Cuba -- past, present and future.
The number of American students studying in Cuba dropped precipitously after 2004, when the George W. Bush administration imposed new restrictions that, among other things, limited study abroad programs in Cuba to those lasting at least 10 weeks, required university-led programs to be run by full-time faculty members and restricted universities with Cuba programs from enrolling students from institutions other than their own. All told, the number of U.S. students studying in Cuba fell from 2,148 in 2003-4 to 251 in 2008-9, according to data maintained by the Institute of International Education.
Now, with the lifting of the Bush-era restrictions, that number is poised to rise again – and “[n]ever has Cuba been more interesting,” said John H. Coatsworth, dean of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Coatsworth described major economic and, to a lesser degree, political reforms under way in Cuba. These include the shrinking of the public sector in favor of expanding the private sector -- illustrated perhaps most saliently by plans to lay off 500,000 public sector workers -- the release of political prisoners, and the implementation of term limits.
“There is an enormously important and so far peaceful transition to a more efficient economy and more open society under way in Cuba, and this represents for Cuba an exciting process which our students can witness firsthand,” Coatsworth said.
“The new Obama rules were long in coming, but they’re now even more liberal than the rules of the Clinton era,” he continued. “The good news is that it’s time for us all to get back in business.”
According to the new regulations on travel to Cuba released by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in April, accredited universities can operate programs in Cuba under a general license.  The general license provides a blanket authorization for students, faculty and staff at accredited universities to participate in a structured, credit-bearing study abroad program or in a formal course of study at a Cuban academic institution, assuming that course of study will count toward completion of an undergraduate or graduate degree. (Other acceptable activities under general licenses include conducting graduate research in and about Cuba, teaching a course of 10 weeks or longer at a Cuban academic institution, and sponsoring Cuban scholars to teach or do research at U.S. colleges.)
However, people-to-people exchanges, maintained by third-party providers, require a specific license, and so far there hasn’t been much movement on that front. “The government has been sitting on dozens of applications since January with no response,” Jerry Guidera, U.S. director of the Center for Cross-Cultural Study, which operated programs in Cuba from 1996-2004, said via e-mail. “Since most students study abroad through so-called ‘providers,’ the practice of restricted access to study abroad remains in place.”
The expectation is that the government will approve a big batch of specific licenses all at once, John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, said at the NAFSA conference on Tuesday. “We’re optimistic, but it’s an optimism based on hope rather than evidence.”
Other questions on Tuesday dealt with the question of investment in Cuba amid an uncertain political climate: as one audience member asked Coatsworth, “We are now 17 months away from another presidential election, about the amount of time it would take me to establish a program in Cuba. Can you respond to that?” Coatsworth obliged, saying that if he had to bet – “and I recognize that most deans aren’t betting people” – the chances of a future administration reinstating restrictions are practically nil. As evidence, he cited public opinion polls finding that the majority of Cuban-Americans no longer support the U.S. embargo, and the fact that Cuba is changing in the very directions that the U.S. has wanted it to.
And yet challenges remain. For one, the difficulty of getting a U.S. license for the travel of a representative from the University of Havana to attend the NAFSA conference did not go unnoted Tuesday; in the end, the Canadian Bureau for International Education sponsored her trip.
Mayra Heydrich, a professor of biology at the University of Havana and director of the institution’s exchanges with U.S. universities, spoke Tuesday of the dramatic decline in U.S. students at the university from a high of 273 in 2003, when there were nine U.S. semester-long programs operating at the university. Five shut down permanently, but since 2005, and despite the restrictions, 10 new semester-long programs have begun, and the number of U.S students at the institution has been gradually increasing again, to 117 last year.
One can expect more universities to be opening programs in Cuba over the next year. And at least one university is ahead of the game: Dominican University students are in Cuba on a faculty-led program there now.  The faculty member leading the program, Christina Perez, an associate professor of sociology, had begun planning the program in 2009 but halted due to the restrictions on academic travel; thus, she was able to quickly organize the program following the announced policy change in January.
The NAFSA conference continues throughout this week in Vancouver. Nearly 9,000 international education professionals from 100 countries are expected to attend.