Breaking the Barrier for U.S.-Cuba Academic Relations

Allen Schaidle

In July, the White House announced to vastly loosen travel, commerce, and investment restrictions previously imposed against Cuba. This signaled a new era for U.S.-Cuban affairs after nearly 50 years of estrangement from one another ended in December 2014. Cuba’s proximity, combined with the loosening of Communist Party control, underlines a fundamental moment to strengthen Cuban society and resurrect the country from economic turmoil. The White House will begin to issue travel visas more liberally: such licenses will remain within the preexisting categories, yet the number of U.S. visitors is expected to increase dramatically. Notably, this will allow a greater influx of students on educational exchanges, thus furthering the potential for U.S.-Cuban academic diplomacy

Academic relations, particularity those involving institutions of higher education, are effective and meaningful methods of interstate connections. As demonstrated by similar cases, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, China, Vietnam, and the United Arab Emirates, higher education exchanges have significantly contributed to developing and securing international relationships. Indeed, the countries with which the U.S. engages the largest student exchanges are additionally some of the most vital economic allies for the U.S. (such as China, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia). Such initiatives are not only pursued by the U.S., but also have a rich history in European higher education. Prior to their introduction into the European Union (EU), central and eastern European countries participated in education and training programs with their western EU neighbors, in hopes of solidifying their position for EU membership. Investing in U.S.-Cuban academic relations can potentially improve economic and political 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. 

Previous academic relations with Cuba suggest that it may be a fruitful partnership to enter once again. While remaining a sub-category of wider diplomacy, they were key in fostering generational integration between the two countries and developing cultural understandings. In 1961, the U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Cuba after Fidel Castro signed a trade agreement with the former Soviet Union. Following the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962, presidential administrations fluctuated in the restrictions imposed on travel to and relations with Cuba. Consequently, the number of Cuban students studying at U.S. higher education institutions plummeted and American scholars overwhelmingly lost access to Cuba. The loss of scholarship resulted in American scholars, diplomats, politicians, and the wider public distancing themselves from Cuban society. With the distance, stereotypes regarding Cuban society flourished and political discourse became essentially nonexistent. Despite never explicitly prohibiting academic relations, Cuba’s status as a “hostile” country brought them to a dramatic halt. 

A glimmer of hope for renewing U.S.-Cuban academic diplomacy emerged during former President Clinton’s administration. Through Clinton’s initiatives and his Track II policy, between the years of 1993-2001, relations improved in a manner unlike any previous administration. During this period, an average of 30-40 Cuban researchers from the University of Havana traveled to the U.S. monthly. In addition, near the end of Clinton’s second term, educational partnerships amplified: roughly 760 American institutions of higher education requested licenses for student exchanges with Cuba from the Treasury Department. In addition, Cuba became the 14th most favorable destination for American students studying abroad. The benefits of Clinton’s administration efforts lasted into former President George W. Bush’s first term. 

However, following the growth of the Republican party in the early 2000s, Bush’s administration delivered a new blow to the already withered U.S.-Cuban relations by restricting academic programs to Cuba to only long-term programs (whole semester or longer). As a result, the number of American students and scholars willing to participate dropped due to the time commitment and stronger travel restrictions. Bush’s administration froze academic exchanges with Cuba, directly ignoring the advice from his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, on the importance of such exchanges in developing cultural perspectives within American citizens. Fast-forward to 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. 

Referencing the most recent IIE data, the number of Cuban students enrolled in U.S. higher education institutions in 2014 was only 69. While in recent decades the number of Cuban students studying in the U.S. has been fairly stable due to strict licensing of student visas, the influx in educational exchange participants radically fluctuated due to the shifting policies of earlier presidential administrations. Without meaningful and consistent student exchanges, academic relations floundered and are thus where the U.S. needs to focus. Student exchanges are crucial for fostering younger generations with new cultural and international perspectives outside of their native countries. 

As relations thaw, Florida’s higher education institutions can lead. Only 90 miles from Cuba and with a high concentration of Cuban-Americans, Florida is geographically and culturally best prepared. Florida International University and the University of Miami have already shown an eagerness 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. However, the Florida Board of Governors continues to restrict travel, especially educational excursions, to Cuba, despite federal renewal of diplomatic relations, through the state’s “Travel to Terrorist States Act.” This came during the post-9/11 years where fears among Americans were exploited by Republicans to advance their political agendas. Passed in 2006, the bill largely affects Florida public higher education institutions because their funding is intimately connected to the state's government. Thus, public higher education institutions are unwilling to contest the state government in fear of losing state allowances. Integrating Florida higher education institutions into Cuba can act as the initial step needed for further academic relations. 

Quality assurance is vital for American higher education institutions. With the renewal of U.S.-Cuban academic relations (branch campuses, student study away sites, research centers), relations in Cuba must ensure that high-quality educational experiences and academic freedom prevails. Without these, important cultural exchanges or diplomatic developments will not follow. This entails monitoring the nature of teaching, research, and educational experiences on both sides of the exchanges. In previous academic relations abroad, this has proven troublesome for institutions. For example, the establishment of New York University-Shanghai highlights the difficultly in achieving standards, particularly in teaching facets. Attracting professors to teach abroad is often expensive, and many academics are hesitant to commit to teaching in countries where academic freedom is questionable. If such relations emerge in the following years, the U.S. must remain conscious to avoid oppression of academic voices speaking out against Cuba’s Communist Party, which we have witnessed in Sino-American 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 followwith 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 regarding these admission tests, deeper student exchanges will follow. However, American institutions should not directly impose American admission processes on Cuban students, but rather mix American and Cuban admission practices. While this might cause some initial confusion in navigating application processes, it will avoid imposing unfamiliar admission processes on one population as opposed to another. This way, if branch campuses are to follow, admission processes will not favour one population over another and both American and Cuban students will experience a novel admission experience. 

Before forging fresh U.S.-Cuban academic relations, institutions should take advantage of academic connections previously established by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This should not side heavily with science-orientated pathways, but needs to be inclusive of 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. Furthering academic relations can be a great accomplishment, but otherwise meaningless, if the connections disregard Cuba’s rich and warm culture. Despite lacking material resources, Cuban academic institutions offer intellectual and cultural resources through their academic scholars and students. If U.S.-Cuban academic partnerships can be successfully nurtured in a culturally cognisant manner, the renewed relations with Cuba can lead to innumerable, mutually beneficial possibilities.