Federal ban lifted, schools hope to open study abroad in Cuba

By Nina Earnest

U. Iowa students and others across the country could soon have the chance to study abroad in once off-limits Cuba because of recent federal policy changes.

President Obama’s administration lifted restrictions on study abroad programs to Cuba on Jan. 14, overturning limits put in place by then-President George W. Bush in 2004.

Janis Perkins, the UI Study Abroad director, said studying in Cuba as a student lets young people visit a nation that is difficult to access after graduation.

“You can go as a student, but Cuba is not being opened up just for vacations and tourism yet,” she said.

The UI discontinued its 2003 Afro-Cuban drum and dance workshop in Cuba, but now, the Study Abroad Office is looking into creating new programs.

Perkins said the Study Abroad Office is working on a proposal for a winter literature program in Cuba — likely to be the UI’s first program offered in the country since the president’s decision. The university hopes to offer an official study abroad program in Cuba by 2012.

Sarah Griebel, a senior Spanish and English major, said Cuba appeared to be a place fewer students would be willing to visit.

“I think it could be an interesting and different approach to studying Spanish,” the 22-year-old said.

Downing Thomas, the dean of International Programs, said many UI students and staff members expressed interest in completing Cuba-centered research in the past few years.

The interest led the UI — and 27 other universities — to sign a letter organized by the Association of International Educators asking the president for the “removal of current restrictions on academic travel to Cuba.”

The Oct. 28, 2010, letter argued the restrictions lowered the number of U.S. students making their way to Cuba.

According to the Open Doors Report, only 251 U.S. students studied in Cuba during the 2008-09 school year, compared to 1,279 in 2001-02.

Ursula Oaks, a spokeswoman for the association, said educational exchanges were a key part of opening a society.

“I think really the point is that American students can travel just about anywhere in the world, and they should be able to travel to Cuba,” she said.

But not everyone approves of the decision.

Frank Calzón, the executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, said he thought it was “shameful” for a university to support study-abroad programs in Cuba, where academic repression is constant.

Calzón said Cuban leaders only reform policy when the Cuban regime is short on money — but an influx of study-abroad dollars will prevent reforms.

“You think you’re helping the Cuban people, but you’re not,” Calzón said.

Yet Thomas said the UI presence in Cuba would be “very limited.”

“We’re not giving money to the Castro regime,” he said. “We’re giving opportunities for students to study abroad and opening up cultural exchanges between the people of Cuba and Iowa.”

Read more here: http://www.dailyiowan.com/2011/01/24/Metro/20821.html