President-elect Donald J. Trump this week reiterated a campaign promise to revisit and potentially reverse the Obama administration’s moves to normalize relations with Cuba, saying via Twitter on Monday, “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.”
What that “better deal” will entail was not elaborated in the 140-character format, but the day before on Fox News Sunday the incoming White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, affirmed Trump’s commitment to a “better deal,” telling host Chris Wallace, “We’re not going to have a unilateral deal coming from Cuba back to the United States without some changes in their government. Repression, open markets, freedom of religion, political prisoners — these things need to change in order to have open and free relationships.”
Trump’s tweet and Priebus’s remarks came after the death of former president and Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro at age 90 on Friday. It is unclear what exactly Trump will do or undo once in office, but among the many varied things that could be impacted by a reversal of the Obama administration’s policies toward Cuba could be educational exchanges, which have increased in number and intensity under a more relaxed regulatory regime over the last five years.
Jorge Duany, the director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, said that while there’s a lot of uncertainty and nothing will really be known until Trump takes office, he is concerned that the president-elect could move to make travel to Cuba more difficult and that things could revert “back to the George W. Bush era in which these kinds of exchanges were limited.”
“Then there’s this issue of visas, whether the U.S. government will continue to issue visas” to Cuban citizens coming to the U.S., Duany said. He said FIU had trouble last summer in getting visas for participants in a noncredit program for Cuban entrepreneurs. “Out of the 24 people that we invited to participate in the program, nine of them were denied visas, and that was under the Obama administration,” he said. “You can imagine what might happen under a Trump administration who might not be as inclined toward this people-to-people contact.”
“I don’t think the U.S. government can prohibit these kinds of contacts,” Duany said. “But it can make it much more difficult.”
It had only recently begun to get easier. Cuban-U.S. academic ties began expanding after the Obama administration issued new rules in January 2011 relaxing George W. Bush-era restrictions on academic travel to Cuba that had all but ended study abroad to the country. The 2011 rule change allowed universities to sponsor credit-bearing programs there without needing to apply for a specific license from the U.S. Department of Treasury, which enforces the decades-old — and still standing — U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
The White House’s announcement of plans to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and a broadening of the types of travel permissible without a specific license at the end of 2014 opened things further. U.S. citizens can now travel to Cuba on what’s called a general license — meaning they don’t have to apply for special permission from the Treasury Department — for a broad number of reasons. Many of those reasons — including professional research or meetings; educational activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic competitions or exhibitions; humanitarian projects; and activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes — have relevance for higher education.
From a logistical perspective, a loosening of restrictions on U.S. citizens banking in Cuba and the resumption — just on Monday — of commercial air travel from the U.S. have eased travel to the island country. The U.S. removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism in May 2015 and opened its embassy in Havana the following July.
The number of American college students studying for credit in Cuba has shot up while these changes have occurred. Having fallen from 2,148 to 169 in a single year after the Bush-era restrictions were put in place in 2004, the number of study abroad students in Cuba has, since 2011, recovered. In 2014-15 — the most recent year for which data are available — the number of Americans studying in Cuba was 2,384, according to data from the Institute of International Education’s annual Open Doors survey. The number of Cubans studying in the U.S. has also climbed but remains quite small, at just 153 in the 2015-16 academic year.
Trump’s comments have prompted concern that the rule changes that have paved the way for increased academic exchange to Cuba could be reversed. Jorge Domínguez is a professor of government and formerly the vice provost of international affairs at Harvard University, which was one of a small number of institutions that kept its study abroad program at the University of Havana going during the Bush years. At that point, “we had to ask for what was called a specific license to do pretty much anything,” Domínguez recalled. “One specific license to send the undergraduates, a separate specific license to be able to buy coffee for a workshop. It really was a pain in the neck, and the Obama administration said, ‘Academic exchanges, activities of this sort, have a general license. Just do it.’ So we no longer have to do this paperwork each and every year.”
Asked if the coffee example was hyperbolic, Domínguez said no. “Admittedly, it was not just coffee; it was coffee and cookies,” he said.
“You’re talking about tiny sums of money and ridiculous kinds of things, and I suppose all of this could come back,” said Domínguez, who added that another important change since the Bush administration has to do with the relative ease in getting visas for Cuban scholars to come to the U.S. The process isn’t perfect, he said, but it’s a lot better than it was then, when the “Bush-era regulations made it pretty close to impossible for Cuban scholars to visit the United State. We had some, but very, very few.”
John McAuliff, the executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a nonprofit that promotes people-to-people connections between Americans and Cubans, said that there’s a high level of distrust toward Trump in Cuba. “The language of ‘I want to make a better deal’ — the Cubans don’t regard the changes that they’re making inside the country as part of a deal,” he said. “They regard them as their own process of modification and modernization and reform, and they’re doing it for their own reasons. If the U.S. wants to end its hostility, that’s helpful and positive and they’re in favor of that, but they react very strongly to the sense that he can come in and renegotiate something because he wants to.”
McAuliff said Fidel Castro’s death made Cuba policy a “front and center” issue for Trump when it hadn’t previously made his priority list for his first 100 days in office. It is a complicated time, politically. McAuliff said Fidel’s death removes a “constraining influence” on his brother Raúl, who has embarked on a series of modest economic reforms since assuming the presidency in 2006. At the same time, McAuliff said, “Fidel personally was such a major psychological obstacle for lots of American governing-class people … it may actually wind up that Trump has more space now with Fidel no longer in the picture.”
Amid the uncertainty over the future of official U.S.-Cuba relations that Castro’s death and Trump’s statements have wrought, universities that have moved aggressively to build up their activities in Cuba are marching on.
“While there is uncertainty about the changes that may come with the new U.S. administration, we are clearly focused on completing the fall term and welcoming 27 new students for the spring semester,” said Kendall Brostuen, the director of international programs and an associate dean at Brown University, which is part of a consortium of universities offering a semester-long study abroad program in Havana. “Our view is that thoughtfully organized, rigorous academic exchanges clearly advance mutual understanding between the people of Cuba and the U.S., and that education should transcend politics. These exchanges with Cuba should continue and, where possible, be strengthened.”
Northeastern University is also moving ahead with its plans in Cuba. It is sending its first two students to do their required “co-op” — a work-related experience — with an environmentally focused nongovernmental organization in Cuba this spring and is in the process of developing a yearlong program that will include a six-month co-op component and a six-month study abroad component. Northeastern faculty are also collaborating with Cuban counterparts in the areas of marine science and coastal sustainability. A university delegation led by Northeastern’s president is scheduled to visit Cuba in February.
“All our efforts on the ground are going to be accelerating regardless of what happens with U.S. relations on an official level,” said José Buscaglia, a Northeastern professor and chair of the Cultures, Societies and Global Studies Department.
“I have 20 years of experience dealing with the Cuban authorities, and eight of those years were during the difficult years of the George Bush administration in the early part of the 21st century,” said Buscaglia, who in his previous position at the State University of New York at Buffalo directed a joint graduate program with the University of Havana from 2002 to 2014. “Even at that moment, the possibility of taking students to study in Havana was not fully curtailed.”
Lehman College, which is part of the City University of New York, is one of a dozen institutions that participated in an Institute of International Education program focused on helping U.S. colleges develop partnerships in Cuba in 2015. A second IIE-sponsored delegation including representatives from eight U.S. colleges and universities is currently in Cuba, visiting institutions in the cities of Cienfuegos, Havana, Holguín and Santa Clara.
Teresita Levy, Lehman’s director of international programs and global partnerships and an associate professor in the Department of Latin American, Latino and Puerto Rican Studies, said the university is pursuing partnerships involving joint research and teaching, respectively, with two institutions in Cuba, the Universities of Camagüey and Sancti Spiritus.
“This week I’ve been in a lot of contact with my colleagues in both of these universities,” Levy said. “They’re so sad about Fidel, of course, but they’re really just worried about Trump. Someone said to me that the relationship with Cuba has always been at the mercy of whoever is in charge here.”
“We have to keep going,” Levy said. “We have to keep pushing. Nothing has changed yet, and in the meantime we’re just going to continue working as though things are going to stay as they are until we know otherwise, and if that happens we will adjust and fight and lobby.”
“If we were to shut off conversations with Cuba or the relationship with Cuba, we will again be the only country in the world that does not engage with the island nation,” said Jill Welch, the deputy executive director of public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, which promotes partnerships between U.S. and Cuban universities and lobbies for legislation to dismantle the travel and trade restrictions still in place under the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. “That would mean that we would stop our students from learning about the Cuban people and we would restrict our own citizens from being able to engage with others. I think that would very well be a step in the wrong direction.”
“The U.S. and Cuba have a long history of mutual distrust,” Welch continued. “What we’ve found is successful efforts to improve relationships between the two countries and the two governments are closely tied to efforts to build relationships between nonofficial and nongovernmental sectors, like academic exchange. Working to build student exchanges, study abroad programs and the like is absolutely critical to building knowledge and competence on both sides that can help rebuild the relationship and overcome the legacy of mistrust.”