An Argument for U.S.-Cuba Academic Relations

Allen Schaidle

In July, the White House announced a major relaxation of the travel, commerce, and investment restrictions previously imposed against Cuba. This signals a new era for U.S.-Cuban affairs, including academic relations, after nearly 50 years of estrangement from one another ended this last December. Cuba’s proximity, combined with the eroding Communist Party control, underlines a fundamental moment to strengthen Cuba and avoid economic turmoil. 

Academic relations, particularly those involving higher education, are effective and meaningful methods of diplomacy. Look at similar cases, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, China, Vietnam, and the United Arab Emirates: higher education exchanges significantly abetted in developing and securing these relationships. Unsurprisingly, the countries with which the U.S. engages the largest student exchanges are correspondingly some of the most vital economic allies for the U.S. (such as China, South Korea and Saudi Arabia). Investing in U.S.-Cuban academic relations can improve economic ties, foster greater understanding of Cuban society, and provide each country with new educational opportunities.  The U.S. has the chance to cultivate foreign relations with Cuba once again and the importance of academic connections should not be overlooked. 

The strength of previous academic relations with Cuba suggests that it may be a fruitful partnership to enter once again. In 1961, the U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Cuba after Fidel Castro signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union. Following the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962, presidential administrations fluctuated in the restrictions that they imposed on Cuba. Consequently, the number of Cuban students studying at U.S. higher education institutions plummeted and American scholars overwhelmingly lost access to Cuba. Despite never explicitly prohibiting academic relations, Cuba’s status as a “hostile” country dramatically halted academic relations. In 2004, academic relations reached rock bottom with only 169 educational exchange participants (e.g. research participants or students on study-abroad schemes) between the U.S. and Cuba recorded by the Institute of International Education (IIE), down from 2,148 just the previous year. However, in recent years, numbers have increased. By 2011, the number had risen roughly 300% to 1,454. 

Despite this impressive resurgence, the number of Cuban students actually enrolled in U.S. higher education institutions in 2014 was only 69 students. While in recent decades the number of Cuban students studying in the U.S. has been fairly stable, the influx in educational exchange participants radically fluctuated due to the shifts between President Bush’s and President Obama’s administrations. Without meaningful and long-term student exchanges, academic relations floundered and are thus where the U.S. needs to focus. Student exchanges crucial for fostering younger generations with new cultural and international perspectives outside of their native countries. 

As relations thaw, Florida higher education institutions can lead. Only 90 miles from Cuba, with high concentrations of Cuba-Americans, Florida is geographically and culturally best prepared. Florida International University and the University of Miami are eager to increase student exchanges with Cuba’s nearly three-dozen higher education institutions. In addition, they have even hinted at the potential construction of branch campuses in Havana. Yet, the Florida Board of Governors continues to block educational travel to Cuba, despite federal renewal of diplomatic relations, through the state’s “Travel to Terrorist States Act,” passed in 2006, which largely affects public institutions. By easing Florida schools into Cuba, this can act as the initial step needed for further academic relations. 

Cuban students largely lack access to university entrance exams. This June marked the first time five Cuban students enrolled to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) in Havana, a test offered and administered by New Jersey based non-profit Educational Testing Service (ETS). ETS should follow this with tests such as the American College Test (ACT), Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), Graduate Record Examination (GRE), and Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) in order to help Cuban students applying to U.S. institutions. Once access has been increased to Cuban students, deeper exchanges will follow. 

Before forging fresh U.S.-Cuban academic relations, institutions should take advantage of connections NGOs have previously established. This should not heavily side with science-orientated pathways, but needs to be inclusive with all disciplines. NGOs like the Ford Foundation, Social Science Research Council, World Affairs Council, and IIE all have previous initiatives focused on Cuba. These pathways can guide the navigation for future academic relations and serve as the foundation.   

Cultural awareness and respect toward Cuban society must be a priority in all U.S.-Cuban relations. Despite lacking material resources, Cuban academic institutions offer intellectual and cultural resources through their academic scholars and students. If a U.S.-Cuban academic partnership can be successfully nurtured in a culturally cognisant manner, the renewed relations with Cuba can lead to endless possibilities benefiting both countries.