Study Abroad in Cuba: Adapting to the Effects of US Policy Shifts

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Photo: Fernando Medina/Cubahora

For U.S. scholars and students, studying in Cuba means immersion in a complex, changing, and sometimes perplexing culture and society, enriching their academic development and personal growth. Likewise, Cuban academics who exchange with their U.S. counterparts in panels, conferences and other professional events in the United States build enduring friendships and productive collaboration.

As program coordinator in Havana for the Indianapolis-based Institute for Study Abroad, the first U.S. study abroad provider to open a program in Cuba (at the University of Havana in 2000), I have seen firsthand how direct exchange contributes to broader knowledge, understanding, and communication among U.S. and Cuban participants.

Unfortunately, this bilateral academic exchange has slowed significantly in the past year following a series of U.S. measures rolling back engagement with Cuba and restricting U.S. travel to the island, especially after the emergence of what the Washington Post recently referred to as a “bizarre medical mystery”[1] surrounding U.S. diplomatic staff. Fewer U.S. students and scholars are traveling to Cuba for semester-long and shorter academic programs, and Cuban scholars face new hurdles to obtain U.S. visas.

However, it is possible to recover this loss of contact. Those of us who believe academic exchange is important and necessary can help provide a clear analysis of U.S. law and regulations, and avoid confusion and misinterpretations by potential study abroad participants and society as a whole. And we can boost our support for Cuban colleagues who want to travel to the United States for academic and cultural exchange.

Travel between Cuba and the United States soared following the Dec. 17, 2014, simultaneous announcements by Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama restoring diplomatic relations. This was reflected by a jump in enrollment in semester-long and short-term study abroad programs of a week to three months. The numbers for the Institute for Study Abroad, IFSA, reflect the overall trend:


U.S. students enrolled in University of Havana for IFSA semester program 

• Fall 2014                  3

• Spring 2017              24


Short-term, custom-designed IFSA programs in Cuba

• 2016                         2

• 2017                         10


The increased flow went both ways: Cuban scholars and academics already were traveling more to the United States after a 2010 Cuban migration law reform enabled Cubans to travel abroad without soliciting official authorization, and the U.S. began issuing five-year multiple-entry visas for Cubans in 2011. These changes made it much easier for Cubans to plan and budget for participation in conferences and other events, and their collaboration and exchange with U.S. counterparts grew significantly after the restoration of diplomatic relations.

However, these trends were stymied by a series of changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba beginning with a National Security Presidential Memorandum signed by President Trump on June 16, 2017, directing agencies to amend a number of regulatory changes on travel to Cuba issued under the Obama administration. Even though specific regulations were not issued until November, U.S.-Cuba travel numbers, including study abroad programs, dropped almost immediately after the memorandum. Enrollment in IFSA’s semester study abroad program at the University of Havana, for example, shrank from 24 in spring 2017 to 10 for fall 2017, a pattern reflected by an overall drop for all U.S. programs at the university.

Uncertainty surrounding U.S.-Cuba relations and travel deepened after initial media reports of “sonic attacks” on U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Cuba were followed by a September 29, 2016 Travel Warning issued by the U.S. State Department and the withdrawal of all but a skeleton staff from its embassy in Havana. Again, the impact was felt immediately in study abroad, even though several U.S. universities and providers, including IFSA, published statements declaring that they had determined a “very low” risk to U.S. students in Cuba.[2]

Within four weeks of the official Travel Warning, five U.S. universities cancelled their short-term IFSA study abroad programs set for January through May 2018, at least one of them because of university travel policy prohibiting travel to a country with a travel warning. All told, at least 20 such U.S.-based study abroad programs in Havana were cancelled between fall 2017 and spring 2018.[3]  

As part of the U.S. embassy withdrawal, visas to Cubans were indefinitely suspended, and then made available only through U.S. embassies in third countries. This poses an insurmountable financial obstacle for many, and makes it difficult or impossible to plan and budget for travel to the United States. Not only does it affect Cubans who wish to visit their families and friends in the United States, it also hurts collaborative efforts such as joint scientific research.[4]

The new Cuba travel regulations were finally published in November 2017, and include a list of Cuban entities with which Americans may not engage in direct financial transactions. International media reports and others have wrongly interpreted these new regulations as a reversal of the Obama administration’s relaxation of restrictions.  This lack of correct analysis makes it difficult to dispel confusion and even fear about travel to Cuba. It is very likely that such fear and confusion have contributed to the drop in U.S. travel.

And it has been a big drop. Of a reported 4.7 million visitors to Cuba in 2017, “most were Canadians, Cuban-Americans and Europeans, who face no restrictions. Still, the number of American travelers without family ties topped 600,000, more than six times the pre-Obama level,” according to the Associated Press.[5] However, U.S. visits to Cuba in 2018 total just over half of what they were in the same period last year, according to Cuban tourism officials.[6]

It is possible to reverse this downward trend in travel between Cuba and the United States, including academic exchange. First, students, academics, and service providers need to understand the new travel regulations.[7]

“A number of the terms in the new regulations reflect those in place before 2011,” says Erika Ryser, IFSA’s assistant vice president of program management. The previous regulations, for example, effectively shut down short study abroad programs because they required 10-week or longer programs, students who were matriculated full-time in a degree program at the sponsoring university, full-time university staff, etcetera. Now, however, Ryser says, “after the pre-2011 language, there are a number of regulations allowing educational travel that doesn’t fall into the above categories. For example, you can still participate in short-term educational programs to Cuba, as long as you do it through an organization and not as an individual. You can enroll in a university course abroad for credit, enter a course of study at a Cuban university, and pursue a number of other activities – including participating in non-credit-bearing people-to-people programs sponsored by an organization. The organization’s staff can still travel to organize and supervise the experiences.”

To comply with the spirit of the regulations, IFSA builds a full-time schedule of educational activities, Ryser said, adding that no tourist activities are allowed, but travelers are permitted time to rest and reflect during non-scheduled activities. The authorized provider organization, such as IFSA, must maintain financial and itinerary records of group and individual travel for five years. In addition, IFSA maintains reports written by on-site staff throughout the semester.

Under the new regulations, U.S. visitors are barred from direct financial transactions with an expanded list of Cuban entities,[8] including hotels associated with the Cuban armed forces.  This “affects us in small ways, such as not patronizing certain hotels, but we have amended our programs to avoid such locations, and are informing students and visitors during orientation sessions and in handbooks,” Ryser said.

Secondly, while a U.S. travel advisory remains in place for Cuba (the State Department recommends that U.S. citizens “reconsider” travel), it is worth noting how safe U.S. travelers say they feel in Cuba. According to the online business magazine MarketWatch, “The Center for Responsible Travel surveyed tour groups that took 17,000 travelers to Cuba in 2017 and found no evidence any of those people reported symptoms similar to what diplomats experienced.”[9]

In any case, U.S. students and scholars generally have no reason to have contact with the type of U.S. (or Canadian) diplomats in Cuba who reported symptoms that remain unexplained following months of investigation and multiple FBI trips to Cuba.[10]  Interestingly, a significant number of the “medical mystery’s” reported 24 victims were actually CIA agents working undercover as diplomats, according to investigative reports, and none of the victims’ names has been released to the public.[11]

“Neither our semester nor our short-term students engage in activities with U.S. diplomatic personnel,” says Michelle Ranieri, IFSA Resident Director in Cuba. “They go to class, participate in sports and cultural activities with their Cuban peers, and visit historic and cultural sites.”  As one spring 2018 semester student, Amanda Grolig, noted in her blog article, “Why I Decided to Study Abroad in Cuba Despite the Travel Warning”:

Personally, I feel very safe and welcomed here…. I know that I have many people supporting me, including the program’s resident director and my host family. We had long conversations during our orientation about health and safety topics including what to do during an emergency and how to navigate the city. My host family has been incredibly warm and inviting; they always make sure that I and the other students living in their home feel safe and comfortable.

Like any major city, there are things to watch out for, such as petty theft. However, I feel very equipped to deal with these situations thanks to our orientation. And so far, I have absolutely no reason to believe that I am in any physical danger due to “sonic attacks.”[12]


Testimonies like these are very important to recovering lost academic exchange. In study abroad conferences and forums such as the Latin American Studies Association, U.S. actors – including scholars, students, and providers – can educate other students, parents and professionals about the reality of study abroad in Cuba. We can bring positive influence to bear using blogs like Amanda’s and the social media. And we can participate in efforts such as RESPECT (Responsible Ethical Cuba Travel), a 150-member association of non-profit entities, travel agencies, tour operators and other travel service providers dedicated to practicing and promoting ethical and responsible travel to Cuba. Likewise, we can provide extra support and advocacy for Cuban scholars who wish to participate in conferences, panels and other professional activities in the United States. Together, we can maintain a necessary, important, and steady flow of information, ideas, and contact between the people of Cuba and the United States.


Michelle Ranieri and Erika Ryser contributed to this article.



[1] Rezaian, Jazon. “The End of Cuba’s Castro era is an opportunity for Trump,” Washington Post, Apr. 19, 2018,

[2] See: Institute for Study Abroad statement published at

[3] Those 20 programs were planned by U.S. study abroad providers, including IFSA, that work with Cuban partner institution Centro de Estudios Martianos.

[4] Guzzo, Paul. “Cultural, research exchanges threatened by U.S. suspension of visas for Cuba,” Tampa Bay Times, Oct. 3, 2017. See:

[5] Weissenstein, Michael, “AP Explains: For Americans, big changes in travel to Cuba.”

[6]  Acosta, Nelson. “US Visits to Cuba Plunge Following Trump Measures.” Reuters, Apr. 24, 2018. Found at:

[7] See: 31 CFR 515 – Cuban Assets Control Regulations,  515.565(a) and (b)

[9] Paul, Kari. “Is it safe to travel to Cuba after mysterious ‘sonic weapon’ attacks?” MarketWatch, Feb. 20, 2018. Found at:

[10] Lederman, Josh, and Lee, Matthew. “Tillerson: Sending U.S. diplomats to Cuba still risky; FBI doubts sonic attack,” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 8, 2018.

[11] Kornbluh, Peter. “What the U.S. Government is Not Telling You About Those ‘Sonic Attacks’ in Cuba,” The Nation, March 7, 2018.

[12] Grolig, Amanda. “Why I Decided to Study Abroad in Cuba Despite the Travel Warning,” taken from the Institute for Study Abroad student blog: