Current Perspectives and Problems Regarding Academic Exchange between the US and Cuba

Este artículo forma parte del dossier: 
Foto de portada: Kako Escalona

It would be an understatement to say that this past year for academic exchange between Cuba and the United States has been a difficult one. What promised to be a boom time for such exchanges two or three years ago, after the two countries took steps towards normalization under then-presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama, veered sharply downward after Donald Trump was elected U.S. president in November of 2016.

During Obama’s tenure, especially following the December 17, 2014 bi-lateral announcement to begin normalization between the US and Cuba, travel to Cuba soared, including academic exchange travel. The Obama administration worked to ease the travel restrictions during this period. The twelve categories for travel including family visits, journalistic activity, government business, educational activities, etc., were expanded greatly. In particular, academic exchanges were no longer required to be 10 weeks or longer. And hugely impactful were changes within the “people to people” license category. As an example, in 2015, visitors from the US were up 77% to 161,000 from 2014 not including Cuban-Americans. They rose again in 2016. However, all that changed in 2017 and new policies have greatly diminished the flow of academic exchange, and travel in a general, between the US and Cuba.

The purpose of this article is to share the perspective of members of the educational travel community in the US about the current situation as well as discuss ideas about how this valuable exchange can be continued and stimulated by Cuban and US stakeholders. This article was written in collaboration with the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) a Washington, DC-based nonprofit, and several US tour operators who are members of a Cuba advocacy coalition led by CREST including Academic Travel Abroad, Marazul, and Holbrook Travel. This article will focus primarily on academic exchanges from the US to Cuba as opposed to exchange from Cuba to the US since the organizations that have contributed to this piece and are part of our Cuba advocacy coalition work primarily with exchanges on US exchanges to Cuba.

With this purpose in mind, let us review the changes that have impacted travel to Cuba in general, including academic exchanges.

During his campaign, Trump disparaged normalization, for many of the same reasons cited by some rightwing U.S. politicians in the past. In June of 2017, six months into his first term, Trump promised to roll back many of the Obama-era policies that had helped facilitate educational exchanges, starting with individual U.S. travel to Cuba.

In November of 2017, the Treasury Department released the updated regulations that govern travel to Cuba for US citizens. To many organizations experienced in Cuba travel and related regulations, those new rules are viewed as having a relatively small impact on travel to Cuba. They still allow for the 12 categories of travel as before. Academic exchanges, in particular, are much the same as they were under Obama. The biggest changes were; 1) an official State Department “travel warning” against travel to Cuba, issued in September 2017 and 2) the “people to people” category was changed to impede individual, self-directed travel in which travelers are once again steered into groups going through organizations. 3) The Treasury Department issued a ban on any direct transactions with some 180 Cuban organizations that have ties to the Cuban military. Included were hotels, tour operators, etc. Due to media headlines and escalating tensions between the Cuban and U.S. governments, many Americans believe it is no longer legal—or safe—to travel to Cuba.

This perception was precipitated by the U.S. State Department’s response to what is famously—and erroneously—known as the “sonic attacks” on U.S. diplomats. As of this writing, the cause of this mysterious ailment is still publicly unknown, but there is documentation showing that 24 U.S. Embassy employees (apparently all intelligence agents)and some family members , as well as 10 Canadian diplomats in Havana have suffered severe and, in some cases, permanent health injuries. Those injuries, reported between the fall of 2016 and August of 2017, put the following U.S. policies in motion:

  • In late September2017, the U.S. State Department removed 60 percent of the U.S. Embassy staff in Havana and deported the same contingent from the Cuba Embassy in Washington, D.C.
  • The U.S. State Department also issued a Travel Warning for Cuba, citing the “attacks” on diplomats also possibly endangering civilian visitors to the island. In addition, State Department officials that a travel warning must automatically be issued whenever there is a ‘drawdown’ of Embassy staff in a particular country.
  • In January 2018, it introduced a new Travel Advisory system, rating countries 1 (for “exercise normal precautions”) through 4 (“do not travel”). Cuba was given a 3 (“reconsider travel”), which, along with a 4, is the equivalent of the old Travel Warning.
  • In early March 2018, the State Department announced it would not be re-staffing the U.S. Embassy in Cuba and did not change Cuba’s travel advisory status.


What is misleading about the advisory regarding travel to Cuba, which covers the entire country, is the reason for it—the “attacks targeting U.S. Embassy Havana employees.” Those 24 employees were affected only in select parts of Havana—primarily diplomats’ homes and a couple of hotels—but nowhere else in the country. Further, there have been no confirmed reports that any of the 4.7 million people who traveled to Cuba in 2017 suffered from symptoms similar to those of the diplomats.

What was once a steady American increase in visits to Cuba, however, has tapered off significantly, and promises to continue in that direction throughout 2018.

A recent survey, conducted by the CREST confirms this disturbing trend. Forty-two U.S. tour operators and educational travel companies shared the following:

  • 85% saw a greater decline in bookings/increase in cancellations in the second half of 2017, compared to the first half.
  • 66% have had cancelations from travel partners (universities, museums, professional associations, etc.) in 2017/2018.
  • 85% project fewer bookings for people-to-people travel in 2018 than they had in 2017.
  • The top 5 perceived reasons cited for decrease in travelers during 2017 are:

1. State Department travel advisories (84%).

2. Belief that the new U.S. policies make travel to Cuba illegal for U.S. citizens (75%).

3. Health concerns/fears about Cuba (56%).

4. Safety concerns about Cuba (50%).

5. Fear of being subjected to unnecessary scrutiny by U.S. authorities upon return or regarding the documentation or other requirements (37%).

And none of the 42 US companies who responded to the CREST survey reported having any traveler in 2016 and 2017 who contracted the same kinds of health problems as those of the U.S. Embassy employees.

It is note worthy that the main obstacles to academic exchange and other types of travel from the US to Cuba are primarily about public perception of legality or safety. The effective change in regulation has been minimal; yet the public’s confusion caused primarily by the travel warning is having a large negative impact on the number of exchanges taking place. Likewise, the safety of travel to Cuba is consistently rated very high compared to other destinations, particularly vis a vis many other countries give a State Department Level 3 status such as Sudan, Pakistan, Egypt, and Venezuela. Once again, the fear generated by the Travel Warning and Trump administration statements, not the reality, of traveler safety in Cuba has had a significant impacton academic exchanges and programs in Cuba.

Though perception plays a huge role as described above, there is one area in which legal problems do arise for academic exchange travel to Cuba. Many colleges, universities, and even federal organizations have policies in place that bar study and travel abroad programs to any country that has been given a State Department Travel Warning, which includes, under the new system, any country rated as Level 3 or 4. While we have not been able to obtain data on how many universities have been forced to halt their exchange programs because of the Travel Warning, anecdotal evidence indicates dozens of US institutions have done so. This is generating discussions among academics and some calls for these restrictions to be reconsidered.

Similarly some organizations such as colleges and universities and other entities are required to have emergency medical or other kinds of insurance from a US company for their program participants. Some tour operators have mentioned that particular groups were unable to obtain the required insurance because their insurer’s policy does not cover travel to a destination with a Level 3 or 4 warning. Again, we do not have good data on this concern and it would be worthwhile to learn how much of an obstacle this represents for academic exchange.

While academic exchange travel from the US to Cuba has clearly been damaged, so too has there been very real and tangible damage for travel in the other direction: from Cuba to the US. Because the US has drastically cut the size of its Embassy staff in Havana, including its consular staff, the US now requires Cuban citizens to apply for US visas in a third country (or specifically in Guyana for immigrant visas). This is a huge burden that will increasingly impact every aspect of US and Cuban bilateral relations. While we don’t yet have good statistics about this impact, but it is likely to be a huge blow that continues to increase over time as visas expire and require renewal.

Now that we have reviewed the changes since June 2017 to policy and regulations affecting academic exchange and other types of travel from the US to Cuba, let us turn to efforts that have been undertaken to mitigate the damage. Additionally, we will provide ideas submitted by members of the Cuba travel industry to prevent further decline in academic exchange travel to Cuba and restore and strengthen earlier progress.

Following the late September 2017 drawdown of U.S. Embassy staff in Havana, CREST formed a loose coalition of travel industry and educational organizations that have been working together towards of goal of supporting travel to Cuba. The focus of our efforts have been on lowering the State Department’s travel advisory from a Level 3 (“reconsider travel) to a Level 2 (“exercise increased caution”). CREST members met with representatives of the State Department in January 2018 to express the educational travel industry’s concern about the inaccuracy and inappropriateness of the advisory level as well as expressing concerns about the hugely negative impact for Cuban citizens and small businesses from the changed policies.

Additionally, CREST and coalition members created press releases and resources for the public and the travel industry to create awareness about the continued high-level of safety for US (and other international) travelers to Cuba as well as continued legality of travel to Cuba under the 12 official categories. More details about this advocacy work can be found here.

We’d like to conclude with a short list of ideas from members of the Cuba advocacy coalition for ways to prevent further decline in academic exchanges to Cuba and to bolster this vital sector of travel upon which bi-lateral scientific, academic, and cultural collaboration rests. For the purpose of brevity, we will list them out in a bulleted fashion:


On the US Side:

1. Coalition building: US educational travel organizations, colleges and universities, and others involved in US educational exchanges with Cuba should work collectively to oppose the new US regulations and return to the ‘normalization’ process. CREST’s advocacy coalition and RESPECT (Responsible and Ethical Cuba Travel) are among those trying to raise their voices to the government and media, and others are very important to promote collective interests in travel to Cuba. 

2. Public Relations within the travel industry: There needs to be work to put Cuba in trade magazines, panels, conferences. Travel companies, like the public, are often ignorant about the legal restrictions (or not) and shy away out of misguided public perceptions from considering travel to Cuba. 

3. Advocacy: Supporters of US normalization of relations which Cuba need to collectively advocate with the US State Department to adequately staff the U.S. Embassy in Havana, including its consular section, reclassify Cuba as a Level 2, rather than Level 3, country, and allow Cuba to fully re-staff its embassy and consular section in Washington, DC.


On the Cuban side:

1. Public relations and marketing: Cuban support of the travel industry (airlines, cruise companies, tour operators, educational organizations, etc.,) in their efforts to create awareness about the safety, accessibility and ease of travel Cuba. 

  • Presentations at conferences like NAFSA, ETC, NTA on Cuba underscoring that it is safe and legal to travel to Cuba. NAFSA is the largest US study abroad association.  ETC is the Educational Travel Conference focused on alumni travel and affinity group travel. NTA is the National Tour Association, the largest association of tour planners in North America.
  • PR Campaign to US travel companies to reassure them that Asistur and other services are standing by to assist US travelers in case of emergency. 
  • Reception at Cuban embassy for targeted professional association leaders to give them a presentation and invite them to come to Cuba and have professional exchanges with their Cuban counterparts. 
  • Marketing Cuba’s arts, music, culture, healthcare, education, and environmental resources in Cuba are still a giant draw for travelers. We only need to remind everyone that they can indeed travel and the time is now.

 2. Commercial support: Pricing in Cuba is still relatively high which is a barrier especially for academic exchange programs.

  • Accommodation pricing. Competitive rates at hotels and restaurants as well as flexible terms and payments schedules at the major deluxe hotels. 
  • Removal of the 10% additional charge to change USD into CUCs.

3. Infrastructure: Improvement of infrastructure at Havana airports to allow travelers, including those who do not speak Spanish, to more quickly receive their luggage, quickly exchange money, obtain SIM cards for phones, and take taxis to Havana. Currently, this can be challenging and discourages independent travel.


With so much to be gained by continuing academic exchange travel to Cuba, it is important that the US “stay the course” begun under the Obama administration. In this, perhaps the long and tumultuous history between our two countries can be a source of hope: if the decades of détente did not extinguish the desire for connections between US and Cuban scholars, thinkers, artists, and everyday citizens, then this is testimony to our mutual resilience. Now more than ever it is important for US tour companies, educational institutions, NGOs, and citizens involved with Cuba to demand full normalization of travel, trade, and diplomatic relations.