The Obama administration announced it is lifting tough restrictions on academic travel to Cuba, opening the door to long-awaited educational exchanges to the Communist-ruled country.
Mr. Obama's decision, made public late Friday, will ease constraints on cultural, educational, and religious travel to the island nation. The move overturns regulations imposed in 2004 by President George W. Bush that effectively blocked thousands of American college students from making trips to Cuba.
Higher-education groups had long pressed President Obama to reverse his predecessor's policy, arguing that it curtailed student exchanges and research projects.
Victor C. Johnson, senior adviser for public policy at Nafsa: Association of International Educators, praised the change.
"Cuba is engaged in a historic political transition, and as that transition proceeds, it is essential to strengthen links between United States and Cuban civil society," Mr. Johnson said in a written statement.
"We congratulate the president for having the courage to take these important steps toward freeing U.S. policy toward Cuba from the straitjacket that has restricted our options for so long, and enabling us to engage with the transition."
Mr. Obama's directive will allow educational, cultural, and religious groups to more readily get licenses for travel to Cuba. Specifically, it will permit colleges to run credit-bearing study-abroad programs under a general license; allow students to participate in study-abroad programs sponsored by entities other than their home campuses; restore licenses for people-to-people exchanges; and expand travel for faculty members and researchers, among other changes.
The new regulations will be similar to those that were in place under President Bill Clinton.
It will still not be possible for ordinary American tourists to vacation legally in Cuba, which has been under a U.S. economic embargo for five decades.
Whether the changes will lead to a flood of American students and researchers into Cuba remains unclear. At the time Mr. Bush tightened travel constraints, some 200 American universities were offering courses that involved studying in Cuba, serving roughly 2,000 students a year, according to the Emergency Coalition to Defend Educational Travel, an organization of American faculty members opposed to the limits. Last year, only about 60 American students, from 10 institutions, studied in Cuba, under restrictions sharply limiting eligibility.
Some experts have expressed concerns about research conditions and academic freedom in the country.
Rumors that the administration would relax the travel rules surfaced this summer, but the politically charged changes were not made public until after November's elections.