Law, Politics and Anxiety: Cuba/U.S. Academic Exchange. The Competing Images of the Present in the Context of History

Este artículo forma parte del dossier: 

Foto: Yunier Javier Sifonte Díaz/ Cubadebate.

In this new era when cruise ships from Tampa and Miami loom over the Plaza de San Francisco, it is a perverse irony that the academic and cultural communities in Cuba and the U.S. continue to face head winds of law and politics. Just as cruise ships disgorge their masses of flowered-shirt-wearing visitors onto the cobblestones of Habana Vieja in search of a bit of history, taste of rum and perhaps a quick mambo lesson, scholars, researchers and students in both countries find their work burdened with complexity and fraught with the prospect of legal trouble. Now the large ships with their floating swimming pools, casinos, aerobics lessons and dress-up nights with the Captain come and go freely while the scholars and artists fret about some undefined legal peril that might befall them after a visit.

Before the impositions of travel restrictions by the U.S. in the early 1960s, there was a well- established relationship between the academic and cultural communities in the two counties. Baseball came to Cuba through two students returning home from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. The University of Alabama and other U.S. colleges sent representatives to Cuban high schools in search of applicants. In 1957 among Alabama’s new freshmen was young Fernando Vecino Alegret from Havana —later to become the Cuban Minister of Higher Education. It was not a one-way exchange. Also in the late 1950s Joab Thomas, then a Harvard graduate student and later distinguished botanist, professor and president of The University of Alabama, did his doctoral field research in Cuba. Before interrupted by political tensions and U.S. travel restrictions, there was a mature, vibrant and mutually rewarding academic and cultural interchange between these two countries.


The Present Legal and Practical Reality

Until the United States Supreme Court ends its uncritical deference to the Cuba policies of the Congress and U.S. president, and restores the right of U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba with the same freedoms they enjoy for other international travel, academic and cultural exchanges between the two countries will remain afflicted with uncertainty, and anxiety over the prospect of legal peril.[1] The Congress and every U.S. president from Kennedy to Trump have limited travel to Cuba with an ever-changing array of restrictions.[2] Although these limitations ebb and flow from one administration to the next, ranging from near absolute travel prohibition to less heavily regulated latitude, they share one central feature: the academic and creative work of universities, foundations, scholars, and artists is subject to U.S. government oversight and approval, and violations face possible criminal prosecution and civil fines.

This essay is in three parts:

  • Recent changes in U.S. legal restrictions on academic exchange
  • Additional forces discouraging academic exchange
  • Measures in both countries that can encourage academic exchange

The term “academic exchange” is used broadly in this essay. It includes all types of educational, intellectual and creative endeavors and is not limited to formal “study abroad” programs of universities or professional research conferences. It encompasses both the visit of a busload of U.S. college English majors headed up the hill to Finca Vigía in search of some sort of literary inspiration as well as the reflections of a lone author, without a Ph.D. or connection with any educational institution, bringing his boat to the small harbor of Cojimar to learn something of the life of a Cuban fisherman.


Recent Changes in U.S. Legal Restrictions And their Effect on Academic Exchange

The impact on individual academic or creative work of U.S restrictions on travel to Cuba is hard to measure. More clear is their proven effect on the larger and more organized programs of colleges and universities. The dramatic fluctuations in the number of U.S. universities with active cooperative programs with their Cuban institutions are ample evidence of this effect. More restrictive or more complicated regulations have an immediate and discouraging effect on the formal programs of U.S. universities in Cuba.[3]

The sharp reduction of U.S. universities with active relationships with the University of Havana after the 2004 Bush administration amendments the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (OFAC)[4] Cuba travel regulations is proof of the vulnerability of this type of academic exchange. The 2004 OFAC amendments included a new rule that required U.S. undergraduate students to spend a minimum of ten weeks on any study trip to Cuba. It immediately became more difficult and expensive for universities to organize and fund Cuba study opportunities and often impossible for students to schedule an entire academic term away from their home college. As a result of this and other changes in 2004, the number of U.S. institutions maintaining active relationships with the University of Havana dropped precipitously, down to only a handful.

When many of the 2004 OFAC amendments were rescinded during the Obama administration (including the ten-week requirement for undergraduates) the numbers of exchange programs increased. But Obama is no longer president, and his successor repeatedly promised during the campaign that he would undo many aspects of Obama’s Cuba policy. In reality, like so many political campaign promises, the actual changes taking effect in 2017—at least as far as they affect academic exchange—were very few. With one important exception that applies only educational travel under the “people to people” general license, the Obama era rules for academic exchange remain unchanged.

Current OFAC rules for educational travel to Cuba continue to allow short-term study programs, undergraduate, graduate and professional exchanges, collaborative research and publishing between U.S. and Cuban scholars, continuing agreements between U.S. and Cuban universities and similar activities. However, the 2017 amendment to the general license for educational Cuba travel now requires that all “people to people” travelers be accompanied in Cuba by a U.S.-based paid agent of an approved U.S. travel agency or organization.[5] It strikes at the heart of the work of individual scholars, authors and artists but is often overlooked because it does not apply to the larger university-to-university exchanges, or limit travel to attend academic conferences or some of the other more commonly used license provisions. Nor does it have much practical effect on large people-to-people travel programs that are accompanied by paid tour guides.

The injury to independent scholarship and creativity comes in two forms: the added expense required to travel under the auspices of a U.S.-based sponsoring agency or organization plus the expenses and fees of a U.S.-based agent as a travel companion is economically prohibitive for many. Even without the added expense, the injury to the underlying creative work would be worse. Can one seriously imagine the effect had these rules been in effect in Havana in 1939 or Cojimar in 1951? The toll on literature would have been much greater than the costs of an extra room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos or another bucket of Marlin bait.


Additional Forces Affecting Academic Exchange

The suppressing effect of the U.S. restrictions on an academic exchange is much broader than the contours of specific statutes or regulations. The history of evolving and sometimes self-contradictory legal limitations on Cuba travel has strained the capacities of many U.S. universities to understand compliance requirements or to tolerate the uncertainties that accompany them. Curricular design can take years and assembling a competent faculty with an interested student body for a specialized academic offering even longer. Substantive decisions in university governance take a long time. That academic programs involving Cuba continue to be subject to the pendulum swings of political change is by itself a deterrent to many institutional and individual academic efforts.


Other Factors Affecting Cuba/U.S. Academic Exchange

For understandable reasons, most discussions about the issue have centered on the difficulties imposed by U.S. law, but that is only one dimension to a more complex matter. The general uncertainties in the U.S. academic community about Cuban travel requirements (such as the appropriate Cuban visas for specific types of travel), difficulties establishing initial relationships with Cuban academic and cultural organizations, possibilities of working with Cuban universities outside Havana, all discourage academic exchange.

For true academic exchange, opportunities for Cuban scholars, students and artists to travel to the U.S. is a necessity. Even though now permitted by the OFAC regulations, travel to the U.S. from Cuba has long been burdened by the expensive and unpredictable process of obtaining U.S. visas for the trip. The recent cuts in the consular staffs at the U.S. embassy in Havana and the Cuban embassy in D.C. have almost paralyzed this process, and virtually eliminated the bilateral aspect of exchange.


Measures Each Country can take to Encourage Academic Exchange

Since the 1960s Cuba has been an exception to the protection in U.S. courts for international travel. The best evidence in future judicial or political challenges to restrictions on travel to Cuba and most powerful legal and political argument for the normalization of U.S./Cuba travel regulations will be a record of the substantial cultural, scientific and artistic benefits from continuing academic exchange. Those institutions with active programs should maintain their efforts in spite of transitory shifts in international political relationships and overly complicated compliance protocols. Those new to academic exchange with Cuba should not be deterred by a misapprehension of the legal or practical limitations on their work. Both U.S. and Cuban laws continue to permit substantial and meaningful exchange, and in spite of superficial appearances, travel to Cuba is more convenient (and sometimes more economical) than it has been in a long time.

Given the record of post-1960s U.S. history of official and unofficial efforts to discourage academic exchange or indeed any meaningful travel to or commerce with Cuba, it would be presumptuous to suggest corrective actions for Cuba. However it might be helpful to remember that this history has also had a deep impact on U.S. academic and cultural institutions. Many U.S. academics first come to Cuba with uncertainty and even some anxiety about the whole process. To the extent the Cuban academic and cultural communities, and the governmental ministries instrumental to their work, can clarify and simplify the protocols for creating and maintaining relationships with their counterparts in the U.S., the apprehensions of U.S. partners will be eased and their efforts will increase.


[1] For a discussion of the role of U.S. courts in Cuba policy and their effect on certain legal principles, including the right to international travel see, Murphy, The Cuba Factor in U.S. Courts, 59 Temas 48 (2009).

[2] It is important to understand that U.S. policy toward Cuba—including restrictions on travel, expenditure of money, academic and commercial collaborations, is controlled by both U.S. statutes (laws enacted by Congress) and administrative rules (regulations and guidelines issued by federal agencies such as OFAC). For most other nations, U.S. policy is not so heavily determined by Congress, but is rather left to the executive (presidential) branch of government.

[3] For a historic review of the effects of changing U.S. laws and policies, see, Martinez and Resende Academic Exchange between Cuba and the United States: A Brief Overview, Latin American Perspectives, Volume 33 No. 5: pps 29-42

[4] Because an underlying policy premise for the restrictions on travel to Cuba has been to deny Cuba the financial benefit of tourism and travel from the U.S., the principal design and enforcement of the rules was assigned to the United States Department of Treasury, of which OFAC is a component.

[5] The 2017 changes require that all U.S. citizens traveling under the general people to people license be accompanied by: “…a person subject to U.S. jurisdiction who is an employee, paid consultant, agent, or other representative of the sponsoring organization accompanies each group traveling to Cuba to ensure that each traveler has a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities…” 31 CFR 515.565.