University-area rep working to lift Cuba embargo

Rep. Kahn’s proposal to Congress would make traveling to Cuba possible for study abroad students.

Hilary Brueck

One Minnesota legislator is hoping after 46 years the United States is ready to shake one anti-communist policy loose.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who has traveled to Cuba four times, authored a letter to the U.S. Congress which could help gain momentum to lift the Cuba embargo – and offer possible study abroad opportunities.

Kahn’s letter, which follows Fidel Castro’s resignation and the appointment of his brother to lead the country, has widespread bipartisan support. But many still say it will take more than the recent regime change to change U.S. policies on relations with Cuba.

A need for free elections, open markets, more human rights, the restoration of political prisoners and property taken during the Fidel Castro regime are just a few of the lingering deal-breakers.

Established in the throes of the communist scare in the United States in 1962, the Cuba embargo has been deemed by many as outdated and hypocritical.

According to the University’s Learning Abroad Center, there are no University students studying abroad in Cuba right now; with tighter travel restrictions, many of the programs that used to operate there have folded.

“The embargo has long outlived any purpose that it ever was intended to have,” Rick Jauert, a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said. “It’s a bit purposeless when the rest of the world travels to Cuba and we, who live 90 miles away, cannot.”

On the eve of his second term in 2004, President George W. Bush hiked up student travel restrictions to Cuba even more. Students now have to promise to spend at least 10 weeks in Cuba before they can be approved to go, like University doctoral student and hip-hop producer Melisa Riviere.

Riviere is currently studying differences in hip-hop music between Cuba and neighboring American territory Puerto Rico, and has traveled to Cuba multiple times for research.

Not only can people study differences in Cuba’s unique culture, Kahn also points to Cuba’s health care system, touted as one of the world’s best, and its education as top reasons to study there. Castro had a massive pro-literacy campaign during his time in power.

In turn, she said, Cuba could benefit from more free trade with Minnesota’s farmers and Cuban students exchanging ideas.

“It denies (American) students the ability to go there, but more importantly, for students from Cuba to come to America and see democracy in action,” Jauert said of the embargo.

Even with Castro’s resignation and the appointment of his brother to lead the country, experts still say Cuba won’t immediately rise to the top of the list of foreign policy changes to be made after Bush leaves office.

Kahn said she expects the resolution will be passed in the next few weeks in the state House, with support from both parties. House Republicans have joined Kahn and other Democrats in backing the lift to help rural famers who would benefit from more trade with Cuba.

“There’s a rather unusual group of folks who have come together,” Jauert said of support for lifting the embargo.

If passed in the Minnesota House, the resolution would travel to the U.S. House for discussion. But all national legislation that has previously been written in hopes of lifting the embargo has met veto threats by Bush.

“It’s so unbelievable that we could have relations with China and Vietnam and Russia and all those places and here, little Cuba, we’re terrified of having people go back and forth to,” Kahn said.