Sanctions force colleges to shift study programs away from Cuba

White House tightened restrictions recently

August 05, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Because of federal regulations, Goucher College has to move this winter's Cuba study-abroad program. The new location? Probably Miami.

"Obviously, Little Havana isn't the same thing, and it would radically change the context of the class," said Eric Singer, Goucher's director of international studies. "We have no choice."

Schools across Maryland and the nation are scrambling to deal with the federal government's recent ruling that prohibits academic programs in Cuba unless they are at least 10 weeks long.

At the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, professors are planning to take students to Peru or Brazil instead. The University of Maryland has shifted its three-week winter course from Cuba, where nearly 20 students would have studied arts and culture, to Spain, where they will be expected to examine multiculturalism and the Muslim influence in Europe.

"The teacher's the same, and that's pretty much it," said Valerie Woolston, director of international education services at College Park.

The Johns Hopkins University, which has sent students to Cuba since 1979, hasn't called off its plans for a trip in January. School officials are lobbying federal representatives in hopes of overturning the new rules.

The federal government imposed economic sanctions against communist Cuba in 1963, and most Americans are forbidden to travel to that country. But students generally have been able to go there to study, often for a few weeks during short winter terms.

"People like to go places where it's hard to go," said Leonor Blum, an associate professor of history and political science at Notre Dame. "It's one of our most popular programs."

The Bush administration has tightened regulations, saying that academic programs in Cuba must be at least 10 weeks long and must be overseen by full-time professors.

The rule changes were prompted by a report by the U.S. Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, a State Department group led by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. The commission concluded that most trips by American students were heavily controlled by the Cuban government and that some visits were "disguised tourism." The new rules went into effect June 30.

The changes permit longer educational programs and some graduate and undergraduate projects, government officials said.

"We do promote study in Cuba," said Molly Millerwise, a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department. "This has been part of the Bush administration's crackdown on the amount of hard currency going into the country."

Critics say the new rules are an attempt by President Bush to appeal to voters in Florida, regarded as a key state in the November presidential election. Some Cuban-Americans think economic sanctions are the only way to drive Fidel Castro from power, and the new policy is "designed to score political points," Singer said.

Some academics who oppose them say the new rules will deprive students of the chance to learn about Cuba and will also hurt the U.S. government's efforts to bring democracy to the island nation.

"It's really stupid politics. The more American citizens you have walking on the streets of Cuba, the better chance you have of effecting change," said Wayne Smith, an adjunct professor at Hopkins who oversees the school's Cuba program. Smith is also a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for International Policy and was a diplomat in Cuba.

Some schools are appealing to elected officials to overturn the regulations.

"One particular aspect of the [commission's report] that troubles us is that it links short term, credit-bearing university study abroad programs to tourism, thus dismissing in one fell swoop the great care and thought that we and all our university colleagues put on the learning experience of students in these programs," College Park's Woolston wrote in a letter to Maryland's U.S. senators, Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes.

Hopkins officials, too, would like Congress to overturn the rules. "Hopefully, it will be done in time, and we can go" as planned in January, Smith said.

Other professors are reworking their syllabuses.

"You wouldn't have the chance to observe firsthand the promise and disappointment of the Cuban revolution in Little Havana," Singer said. "But it's the best we can do."

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