Academic Exchanges with Cuba

The Impact of Recent U.S. Policy Changes

by | May 15, 2005

These two Havana boys live in a country cut off from its neighbor 90 miles away. Photo by Joe Guerriero.

U.S. policies toward direct civilian contacts with Cuba have been significantly tightened in recent years as part of the George W. Bush Administration’s concerted efforts to further exert pressure to bring about regime change on the island. This crackdown affects regulations that allow educational exchanges between countries only 90 miles apart from each other, U.S. universities and colleges that have maintained ongoing academic exchange programs for several years with Cuba, are finding that escalating restrictions on academic exchanges have imposed difficult, but not insurmountable, challenges.

The latest tightening of U.S. policies toward the island nation is a continuation of a U.S. policy that has sought the demise of the Castro government for more than four decades. At times, U.S. presidents have slightly loosened these restrictions. The gradual opening of academic exchanges between the countries slowly came about in the late 1970s, aided by negotiations between the Carter Administration and the Cuban government aimed at improving bilateral relations. These exchanges gradually increased so that by 1989, the year of the collapse of the island’s trade with the Soviet Union, 1,500 U.S. travelers in 95 groups were visiting the island, some through educational exchanges, according to data from the travel agency Marazul Charters.

In the early 1990s, U.S. policies toward direct contact between civilians in both countries were tightened in response to the 1994 crisis sparked by the exodus of more than 35,000 rafters and the 1996 Cuban military shooting down of two civilian Brothers to the Rescue aircraft. In 1994, President Clinton banned direct flights to Cuba and introduced enhanced restrictions to the Cuban Assets and Control regulations requiring special licenses for academics on a case-by-case basis. While the Clinton administration in 1995 permitted U.S. undergraduate travel for the first time, by 1996, it had banned all direct flights to Cuba. In 1999, the Clinton administration reversed its earlier hardline stance and introduced policies to enhance people- to-people exchanges, including initiatives directed at promoting two-way interactions among academics and scientists.

In spite of restrictions in U.S. policy, during the 1990s, visits between both countries surged and academic exchanges grew both in number and scope. As a result, a significant number of institutions, including universities and colleges, initiated activities with Cuba, site of one of the earliest universities in the Americas. This sharp increase in bilateral academic exchanges coincided with what would be one of the most dramatic decades of Cuba’s history. The country was grappling with the extraordinary shock of 1990 from the breakup of the Soviet Union and its impact on Cuban productivity and welfare. As the Cuban economy began to gradually recover, academics from both countries would seek to better understand the implications of this experience for Cuba’s economic strategy and social development, as well as the impact of the successive tightening of the U.S. embargo through the enactment of the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act.

One such academic exchange program was started by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS). Since its founding in 1994, the Center has prioritized finding ways to overcome the many obstacles that impeded scholarly collaboration. In the last ten years, DRCLAS has hosted more than fifty Cuban visiting scholars for extended periods of research and collaboration in fields as diverse as archival preservation, economics, history, tropical medicine, political science, public administration and public health in the last ten years. Each year during the last decade, the number of Harvard faculty and students traveling to Cuba for research or other educational activities has increased.

DRCLAS has hosted six academic conferences related to Cuba. Topics ranged from the history of U.S.-Cuban cultural relations, the impact of Cuba’s recent health reforms on public health systems, the history of the former Harvard Botanical Garden(now Jardín Botánico de Cienfuegos), the lessons to be learned from Cuba’s dengue control program, the current and future prospects for U.S. business in Cuba, and issues relating to poverty and social policy in the United States and Cuba were organized in the U.S. and Cuba. Four of these conferences were held on the island, with Harvard students and professors experiencing exchanges with their Cuban colleagues in their home environment. DRCLAS has also published two edited volumes resulting from joint collaborations with Cuban co- editors and showcasing scholarship by both U.S. and Cuban scholars. The first volume was Culturas Encontradas: Cuba y los Estados Unidos (Havana, 2001), edited by John H. Coatsworth and Rafael Hernández. The second volume is The Cuban Economy at the Start of the Twenty-First Century(Harvard University Press, 2004), edited by Jorge I. Domínguez, Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva and Lorena Barberia.



Of the six countries sanctioned by the U.S. government as state sponsors of terrorism, only Cuba is restricted to specific categories of U.S. travelers. The U.S. does not regulate travel to Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. In recent years, however, U.S. policy has sought to rescind travel exemptions for some groups who had been granted permission to travel to Cuba under special licenses, granted by the United States Treasury Department Office for Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the agency charged with enforcement of the U.S. embargo on Cuba. These new rules eliminated people-to-people exchanges that do not involve studies in pursuit of an academic degree. This means that groups such as K-12 teachers and their students, university alumni associations and art museum associations were barred from making educational trips to Cuba in 2003.

President George W. Bush’s Commission for the Assistance to a Free Cuba chaired by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell recently imposed new restrictions on U.S. students, faculty and staff undertaking academic studies on the island. In June 2004, OFAC announced amendments to the 1963 Cuban Assets and Control Regulations that make short-term student programs virtually impossible. Undergraduates and graduate students are prohibited from participating in study abroad programs of less than ten weeks to Cuba. U.S. university faculty invited to teach in Cuba can only do so if their stay lasts for more than ten consecutive weeks. This new ruling is intended to weed out short academic visits frequently combined with tourism and socio-political or cultural exploration of the Caribbean’s largest island. Ironically, this strangling of U.S.-origin travel occurs at the same time that the Bush administration continues to allow Cuba to purchase U.S. agricultural imports, an activity that is part of the embargo against the island since 1963. These restrictions were eased for humanitarian reasons in 2001 after Hurricane Michelle. By 2004, the cash-strapped island had purchased more than $400 million in food from the United States.

In December 2004, NAFSA surveyed the impact on study abroad programs for U.S. undergraduates (For complete survey results, see

Despite the stringent restrictions on educational travel to Cuba, some categories of travel for academics and students still continue to be legal. Graduate students, for example, are still able to travel to the island to carry out research projects as part of a credited course towards their graduate degree. Cuban-Americans hoping to visit their family on the island, accounting for more than three-quarters of the estimated 154,000 U.S.-origin travelers to Cuba in 2003, did not fare so well (El Nuevo Herald, October 10, 2004). Rather than being able to visit once every year, they may now only do so once every three years subject to the approval of a special OFAC license.



Since 9/11 and the subsequent passage of more restrictive legislation by Congress, Cuban scholars and scientists have been effectively denied visas because of prolonged delays in processing. These several-month delays have affected even Cuban scholars who have visited the United States many times. Some Cuban academics have been denied visas based on section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which specifies criteria to deny entry for senior officials in the Government of Cuba and the Communist Party of Cuba.

For example, at the 2004 Latin American Studies Association (LASA) Congress, a scheduled book launching party was transformed into a special session on “Academic Freedom and Scholarly Exchange with Cuba,”a session that garnered a standing- room only audience. Sixty-five chairs sat empty in protest for the denial of visas to the same number Cuban academics. Each chair bore the name of an absent Cuban academic and his or her institution. The October 8 session, hosted by DRCLAS, was to have been a cheery event, a panel to celebrate the publication of The Cuban Economy at the Start of the Twenty-First Century, a book on the Cuban economy. The panel was to have included all three editors—Jorge I. Domínguez, Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva and the author of this article—as well as most of the contributors. However, one week before LASA, the U.S. State Department denied the visas to all the Cuban academics, whether they taught psychology, poetry, or politics and whether or not they had previously visited the United States. The unprecedented action meant that the Cuban economy book’s co-editor and four contributors could not attend the book launching, which was eventually held in March in Mexico City.



However, good news for academic exchanges across the Florida Straits was announced in late December 2004. OFAC unexpectedly removed prohibitions on the editing and publication process of property owned by authors in countries embargoed by the U.S such as Cuba, Sudan and Iran. OFAC removed its relatively recent requirements that U.S.-based author or publishers seeks special permission from the agency prior to editing manuscripts with Cuban copyright. Some Cuba policy watchers interpreted the new amendments as a response to the lawsuit filed in New York Courts in September 2004 on behalf of Association of American University Presses, the Association of American Publishers Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division, PEN American Center and Arcade Publishing. They deemed the new regulations an important and significant victory for academic collaboration. Many Cuban-authored publications previously halted by publishers will now go forward.

In addition to this significant reversal, some other recent developments have sparked cautious optimism. Overturning initial restrictions announced in June 2004, OFAC granted special permissions to 88 U.S. students enrolled in Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine to complete their five-year training as medical doctors. In November 2004, DRCLAS received notification of visa approval for three Cuban microbiologists pioneering medical research on tuberculosis and dengue for three-month long visits to Harvard. The visas had been in process for more than two years.

U.S. policy continues to vacillate between tightening and loosening of restrictions on academic exchanges. At the turn of the 21st century, it is startling to imagine that in a nation that prides itself on free speech and exchange of ideas, some policymakers view certain types of travel by its students and educators to foreign countries as not serving legitimate educational purposes. At the same time, some recent policies involving academic exchanges such as the lifting of publishing restrictions have been eased. And in the midst of this environment, despite the limitations, academic exchanges across the Florida Straits are continuing to forge ahead, adapting to adverse policy changes.



  • Full-time professionals doing research in their fields under the general license.
  • Full-time professionals attending international meetings and conferences, if these meetings and conferences are organized by an international organization not based in Cuba or the United States under the general license.
  • Graduate students engaged in research for any length of time under an institutional educational license valid for one year issued to universities. Students must be enrolled in that particular university in graduate programs, and must be receiving credit toward that degree through this research.
  • Undergraduate students in a structured educational program of a minimum of ten weeks in Cuba under an institutional educational license valid for one year to colleges and universities.
  • Faculty and administrators planning and setting up for any future programs for any length of time under an institutional educational license valid for one year issued to college and universities.
  • Any individual or group, such as a research institute, that has applied for and received a specific license issued by the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Spring/Summer 2005, Volume IV, Number 2

Lorena Barberia, a Program Associate at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, is co-editor of The Cuban Economy at the Start of the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press, 2004). This piece was originally written for NAFSA’s International Educator and appeared in its March/April 2005 issue.

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