For those of us who are committed to the notion that it is important for the United States to open up intellectual and cultural relations with Cuba, the last year has been quite frustrating. We had hoped that the Obama administration would reject the exceptionally restrictive policies of George W. Bush’s presidency since Obama would not be as self-evidently obligated to the Cuban-American hardliners as Bush had been. Indeed, since a Latin American summit was scheduled to take place only a month after President Obama’s inauguration, we thought there was a good chance that the new administration would signal its commitment to open engagement with the southern hemisphere by announcing that it was abandoning most or all of the Bush restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba.
But of course Senator Menendez lost no time in signalling that he would use his considerable power to oppose any relaxation of the Bush policies, and the new policy announced by Secretary of State Clinton merely removed restrictions on Cuban American family travel and remittances — in other words, the Obama policy was basically a return to the policies of President Clinton, which advocates of openness (like myself) had thought needlessly restrictive.
There has been considerable pressure on Congress to lift the travel restrictions and to increase U.S. food sales to Cuba, thanks to an unlikely coalition of advocates of more open cultural and political relations with advocates of increased commercial relations between Cuba and the U.S. There is in fact a hearing in the House Thursday on H.R.4645, a bill to open travel to all U.S. citizens and to facilitate food sales. There have been quite a few votes for such bills, but none has passed in both Houses, and the administration has yet to signal its support for a new beginning in Cuba policy.
On March 9, Paul Basken covered for the Chronicle a meeting in Washington of the Emergency Coalition to Defend Educational Travel (ECDET), an informal group, largely of university faculty, that was formed in 2004 in response to the announcement of new restrictions on travel by the Bush administration (admission: I have been a supporter of ECDET). The meeting (which I could not attend) was presumably aimed at supporting the pending legislation in the House.
Basken reports learning that “only 63 American students from 10 universities” are now studying in Cuba. If so, a high proportion are the nine Princeton students in my department who are currently enrolled at the University of Havana — and who, so far as I can tell, are having a very good academic experience there. The point is that the Bush regulations forbade short visits by student groups, such as the 15 or 20 students Princeton used to send during the spring break, and permitted students only to study in Cuba by registering in a Cuban institution for at least 10 weeks. This policy has been continued by the Obama administration.
But American institutions, faculty and students are also hampered by the licensing procedures maintained by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at Treasury, by the visa procedures maintained by the State Department, and more. All of these have made it difficult for American faculty and students to go to Cuba to do research, study and the like.
Basken reports some skepticism that it is worthwhile for American faculty to attempt to do research in Cuba on the grounds that the Cuban government makes it impossible to do “real research.” There is some truth to such concerns, and they will not surprise any of us who have earlier worked in the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam or Eastern Europe prior to 1989.
Of course there are restrictions, especially in some areas of the social and natural sciences. There are some kinds of research that simply cannot be done in such political environments. Needless to say, there are comparable limitations on research, especially social science research, in many other countries around the world.
But there are also important opportunities in such countries, and in Cuba, for significant work in many fields of the sciences, humanities, and even the social sciences. And there are great opportunities for collaboration between Cuban and American scholars. We have a lot to learn about one another, and from one another.
So apart from appeasing the Cuban-American hardliners (who are surely no longer a majority of the Cuban-American community), why has the Obama administration been so reluctant to remove most or all of the restrictions? Last year in Istanbul the President asserted that “exchanges can break down walls between us,” echoing the spirit of J. William Fulbright on the need for mutuality in cultural exchange.
The newly appointed Assistant Secretary for Latin American Affairs (a serious academic from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service), recently said in Spain that the administration would open relations with Cuba “to have much more communication from one society to the other society.” I hope he follows through. I am committed to the view that enhanced openness would be good for both societies, whereas the tired policy of of embargo has not in all these year achieved its objectives. Let’s give mutual understanding a chance!