By Douglas Fehlen
Published Jan 12, 2012
In January, President Obama lifted restrictions on academic travel to Cuba, making it easier for students to partake in educational exchanges with the island country. To get an expert's perspective on that decision, Education-Portal.com spoke with Arturo López-Levy, Ph.D. candidate and research associate at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies. López-Levy is a passionate advocate for increasing shared educational opportunities between the U.S. and Cuba.
Education-Portal.com: In a ForeignPolicy.com article, you praised President Obama's January decision to ease restrictions on academic travel to Cuba. Why do you support this policy change? For decades, the United States has maintained no formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, enforcing severe travel and trade restrictions against the country all the while. Arturo López-Levy, Ph.D. candidate and research associate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is a longtime critic of American policy toward the Caribbean nation. The University of Denver scholar believes that recent changes in American policy - including relaxed regulations on educational, cultural and religious travel - have the potential to transform the relationship between the two countries.
Arturo López-Levy: Education exchanges will foster rational conversations between Cuban and American societies. This by itself is a very positive advance in the two countries' relationship, a political area in which passion, offenses and political retribution have been the norm.
There are important differences between the political systems of Cuba and the U.S. Furthermore, there are important disagreements between Cuban and American narratives about the history of the two countries and their relations. Most Cubans, for instance, would never talk about the 1898 Hispanic-Cuban-American War or the 1962 Missile Crisis without mentioning the central role of their compatriots. But the two societies, and even the two governments, are not destined to be enemies. Cuban nationalism and a U.S.-led world order are not necessarily incompatible. The optimal way to manage differences and destroy negative stereotypes between these two countries is through a free flow of travelers and ideas across national boundaries. In fact, as the Helsinki process proved in Europe, this is not only the most effective way but also the most democratic.
President Obama's decision occurred at a strategic moment in Cuban history, just after the power transition from Fidel to Raul Castro and in the middle of important processes of economic reform and political liberalization. Cubans on the island and the Diaspora are talking about national reconciliation and dialogue. A discussion of ways in which the U.S. and Cuba might cooperate in almost every area is long overdue.
EP: What types of education exchanges are now permissible between the U.S. and Cuba? Are you aware of additional programs in the works?
ALL: It's important not to have excessive optimism about the Cuban government's attitude toward academic exchanges with the U.S. Those exchanges need goodwill and authorization from both governments.
By allowing scholars, professors and students (graduate and undergraduate) to participate and even sponsor academic events, trips and workshops in Cuba, the White House dismantled the restrictions imposed by George W. Bush in 2004 - a counterproductive policy and an affront to American traditional liberties. The fact that some Cuban government regulations conflict with international human rights to travel and limit the scope of educational exchanges does not excuse Washington's own controls. Hence, President Obama's January decision allowing accredited educational and cultural institutions to sponsor travel to Cuba for academic, cultural and educational exchanges goes in the right direction.
History proves that migratory and travel relations are intertwined with the general atmosphere of the political links between the two countries. Currently, the Cuban government violates the right to travel and the associated right to education of scholars and students when it demands from them exit visas to leave the island. Cuban government officials have presented these controls as emergency measures against a hostile U.S. policy. Following this logic, the Cuban government would probably lift many of these restrictions as part of the current reform, particularly if it enjoys a friendly international environment.
A total dismantling of the travel controls is today unthinkable. In Washington, the House Foreign Relations Committee is chaired by Cuban American Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a fierce opponent to any relaxation of the embargo. In Havana, Raul Castro is not interested in clashes with the U.S., but he is not a misunderstood democrat either. Furthermore, there is a combination of Cuban paranoia with an openly declared goal of the U.S. government to use every single channel (religious, academic, cultural, educational, etc.) to promote a regime change in the island.
EP: What benefits do you predict increased academic exchange will have for Cuba's university community? What do U.S. institutions and students stand to gain from it?
ALL: Because the new openness toward the outside world has gathered momentum in the last years, it's predictable that Cuban universities would try to foster academic exchanges with overseas institutions. In the case of the U.S., Cuba has been disconnected from the American market but not from its academic community.
Most American educational exchanges with Cuba are concentrated in some universities and centers, particularly in Havana, and in some cases reach the same people. American and Cuban institutions should make an effort to diversify the participants in terms of regions, race and gender. It's important to reach out not only to official institutions but also to an emerging sector of non-state actors such as bloggers, independent researchers, language professors and artists.
Cubans have the highest level of education and school attendance in Latin America, with widely disseminated language skills. Among other things, American academic exchanges with Cuba can assist the education of a new generation of businesspeople, managers, economists and accountants urgently needed for economic reform.
There are already American students in Cuba, particularly in the Latin American School of Medicine. An expansion of these exchanges will enable American students, teachers and scholars of all levels to take advantage of the growing educational market in Cuba. Study in Cuba is today a fairly inexpensive alternative for many Caribbean, Latin American and some minority students from the U.S. This could be easily expanded if the Cuban government allows joint ventures in education with foreign institutions. President Obama's decision to allow short-term non-credit related educational visits would enhance the ability of ordinary Americans to learn about Cuban culture and life and see firsthand the counterproductive character of the U.S. embargo against the island.
EP: Do you feel current regulations go far enough to foster multinational academic partnerships, or would you like to see greater cooperation between the two countries? Are there measures you would propose to increase collaboration?
ALL: The policy changes of January 2011 are just the beginning of an urgently needed reversal of Washington's policy of isolation against Cuba. All travel controls, outside obvious national security areas, are a relic of the Cold War and an infringement of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is as valid for Cuba as it is for the U.S. Different from the Helsinki process in Europe, when the U.S. built bridges for a flow of people and ideas across countries, Washington has insisted on adding its own walls to those erected by Cuban communists.
The meager results of such policies are logical consequences of their irrationality and double standards. The Helms-Burton Act dictates unacceptable conditions to Cuban sovereignty and even disrespects Cuban civil society by not asking the informed consent of all Cuban partners for the programs of USAID. The U.S. cannot encourage a democratic environment for academic exchanges if it says it seeks respect for human rights in Cuba but then curtails the rights of its own citizens to travel to Cuba and implements policies that violate international law.
Since the end of the Cold War, the inclusion in the State Department list of terrorist countries has served as the legal and political underpinning for most travel controls against Cuba. The blacklisting of Cuba by the State Department is not the result of serious national security analysis but a simple subordination of American national interests to South Florida electoral politics. That said, American regulations that treat traveling to Cuba and the participation of Cubans in academic events in the U.S. are enforced with maximal zealotry. In 2004, three years after the September 11th tragedy, a scandal broke when it was found that 21 officials at the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the Treasury Department were assigned to monitor transactions with Cuba, while only three were searching the assets of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein combined.
The American academic community should become active in this debate, assess whether Cuba represents a real threat for the U.S. and bring the experiences of the Helsinki process to the discussion of the bilateral relations between Cuba and the U.S. The Obama Administration should seek a wide-ranging dialogue with Havana to set the relations between the two societies on a course towards normal educational relations. Congress must eliminate all restrictions to the use of government or private funds for academic exchanges between Cuba and the U.S. All international institutions, such as those of the Inter-American Consortium of Universities, must be released from any limitation to invite Cubans to participate or benefit from their academic and educational events or fellowships.
EP: Do you believe that warming relations between Cuba and the U.S. on the academic front will also lead to constructive political dialog between the two countries?
ALL: Despite the absence of diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington, food sales, remittances, family visits and cultural, religious and educational exchanges have led to some informal integration between the two countries. A great benefit of academic exchanges between the two countries is the development of a 'linkage community.' This community is defined as a group of people in both countries who develop extensive contacts with the society of the other country. This type of community enables political dialogue across the Strait of Florida as individuals share their knowledge, sensitivity and empathy for those on the other side.
If the Obama Administration's policy of academic, cultural, educational, humanitarian and family travels to Cuba survives for five years, the travel ban will not stand. The current loopholes would eventually create a virtuous circle of travelers to the island who would come back mobilized for less restriction to travel. At some point they would reach a critical political mass.
EP: Are there campus organizations in the U.S. and/or Cuba working to increase academic collaboration between the two countries?
ALL: One of the most seasoned projects working on academic and educational exchanges between Cuba and the U.S. is Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC). The organization is based on the idea that both Cuba and the U.S. can learn from each others' health systems and experiences.
There are other projects, such as the Cuba Section of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), with a substantive Cuban participation in all its conferences, as well as exchange programs at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and other universities. Still many efforts are quite dispersed, and there's a lack of an effective forum among universities in both countries to discuss higher education coordination. Perhaps the presidents of universities on both sides of the Strait of Florida should organize an academic consortium and meet once to coordinate an expansion of academic contacts.
EP: What kind of relationships do you hope ultimately exist between U.S. and Cuba academic communities?
ALL: Our two countries can have the closest of the relationships that exists between U.S academic community and any other country in the world. Every year thousands of Cubans should come to study or lecture in the U.S. and vice versa. Nothing should prevent Cuban and American scholars from participating in the academic life of their neighbor country. That's why I feel frustrated by the missed opportunities for knowledge, interactions and joint development between Cuba and the U.S.
But I am cautiously optimistic; President Obama opened a significant door to academic, cultural, religious and social exchanges. After Fidel Castro's retirement, Cuba is also going through parallel processes of economic reform, political liberalization and openness to the outside world. Growing social integration across the Florida Strait would develop a critical mass of actors that lobby for good relations between Cuba and the United States. Cross-strait economic and cultural ties will further expand and would likely impact political decision-makers.