New federal law won’t affect University trips to Cuba

Stricter guidelines for travel to Cuba might make the University’s study abroad program stand out.

Nathan Hall

The luster of University programs allowing student and faculty visits to Cuba could increase if tougher regulations President George W. Bush proposed Friday are successful.

The initiatives – which would regulate educational trips to Cuba and demand stricter punishments for Americans who illegally travel there – are part of a set of strategies aimed at procuring a nonviolent end to Cuban President Fidel Castro’s reign and a peaceful transition to capitalism and democracy.

The University’s Office of International Programs’ federal license, which authorizes Cuba trips, is not affected by Bush’s plan but could become more prestigious if other organizations’ licenses are revoked.

The U.S. government has prohibited citizens from spending money in Cuba since October 1962 when the United States enacted a trade embargo three years after Castro’s rise to power.

The embargo, however, has exceptions for educational visits, and in 2001, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset

Control granted the University a license to authorize Cuba trips. Since then, 38 students, faculty and visiting scholars have visited the country through the University, and this year the Treasury Department renewed the two-year license.

“Our students have had some really amazing experiences there,” said Martha Johnson, campus director for the University’s Learning Abroad Center. “It’s a unique and challenging opportunity to look at (Americans) in a different light.”

The Learning Abroad Center offers two Cuba programs: a summer program co-sponsored by the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and a semester-long course with the University of Havana and Butler University in Indianapolis.

No one has taken the Illinois program in two years, but University officials said a steady flow of about two students per semester take the Butler curriculum.

Students and faculty applying for a Cuba travel license must sign a form promising, among other things, not to participate in political rallies or bring back more than $100 each of cigars and rum.

University cultural anthropology research assistant Amy Porter has taken 10 trips to Cuba, one through the University’s international programs office, and said Cuba travel should be legal.

“I agree that there are definitely some human rights issues, but they’re by no means the only one,” Porter said. “We don’t have restrictions on China, who has a much worse record overall Ö this is all leftover issues from the Cold War.”

Last summer, 20 University students visited Cuba for eight days, toured the University of Havana and cultural sites and attended the 50-year celebration of the Cuban revolution.

University global studies senior Matthew Bowlby studied in Cuba in 2001 and said even though he encountered “staggering” prostitution and corruption, he would do anything to return.

“There is so much there to do,” Bowlby said. “We have hundreds of years of history with this country, and it’s a tragedy to shut people out from these experiences.”

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, approximately 200,000 Americans visit Cuba every year, roughly one-third illegally.