Cuba embargo won’t blockade students

by Paul Sanders

A 36-year-old U.S. trade embargo that restricts the travel of U.S citizens to Cuba isn’t stopping University student Gerardo Lopez from going there this summer.
“Cuba is Latin America, and we hardly ever hear of it,” said Lopez, a junior studying international business. Lopez, one of 18 University students participating in the U.S.-Cuba Youth Exchange this July, said he is going because of “the total lack of information we have on Cuba.”
The Twin Cities Cuba Network, La Raza Student Cultural Center and Africana Student Cultural Center are organizing 27 people from the Twin Cities to go on the two-week trip to Cuba on July 24. Cubans are organizing the event to improve relations between the two countries and convince U.S. youth that the embargo should be lifted.
Relations between the United States and Cuba have been tense since 1959, when Cuba President Fidel Castro established a communist dictatorship. The United States imposed a trade embargo to economically isolate Cuba in 1960 after Castro aligned the island country with communist China and the former Soviet Union.
Adrianna Sanchez, an organizer for the Twin Cities Cuba Network, said, “Cuba has nothing to hide.” The goal of the trip, she said, is “to break the communication blockade” the United States has imposed on Cuba.
The Twin Cities’ group, which has been meeting since they returned from an international youth festival in Cuba last August, is meeting Wednesday at the La Raza Student Cultural Center to discuss fund raising and logistics for the upcoming trip, Sanchez said.
The logistics of getting into the country are difficult, Sanchez said. The Cuban government’s shooting down of planes flown by anti-communist Cuban activists out of Miami last February has led to increased U.S travel restrictions to Cuba, she said.
Unless U.S. citizens are journalists, professors doing research or government officials, the only way they can travel legally to Cuba under U.S. policy is if the island’s citizens or their government “host” the trip, Sanchez said. That means Cubans must pay all of U.S. citizens’ expenses while they are on the island.
There are no commercial flights from the United States to Cuba. This means U.S. participants in the exchange must fly to Cuba from countries such as Canada or the Bahamas, Sanchez said.
Sanchez said the trip is not hosted by Cuba’s Communist Party, but by a variety of Cuban youth groups that are mostly independent of the communist government.
August Nimtz, associate professor at the University’s Institute of International Studies, has been involved in bringing Cuban speakers to the United States. He said it is important to maintain a free exchange of ideas between the United States and Cuba, especially in light of increasingly hard-line U.S. policy towards the island.
Last March, Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act, a law that authorizes sanctions against foreign companies that do business in Cuba. Recently, many foreign countries have expressed opposition to the act, saying it violates international law.
Even ardent supporters of official U.S. policy, which aims to replace Castro’s government, question whether the embargo is the best way to accomplish their goal. “It’s a legitimate question as to whether the best way to weaken Castro is to continue the embargo as it is or to modify sanctions against Cuba,” said Mitch Pearlstein, president of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank based in Minneapolis.
Nimtz said the Helms-Burton Act impedes the University’s ability to exchange ideas with Cuba.
“In one sense,” Nimtz said, “the trip this summer is an effort to counter Washington’s efforts to block the academic and intellectual contacts between the island and the University.”
Nimtz, who first traveled to Cuba in 1983, said the youth exchange will allow students to hear a broad range of opinions from Cubans about their government. “One of the things that people will quickly learn is that Cubans are very opinionated. (Students) will meet those who praise the revolution as well as those who are alienated in one way or another.”
Doug Nelson, a Minneapolis resident who went to Cuba last year, said he’s participating in the youth exchange to show support for Cuban revolutionaries. Nelson, a member of Young Socialists — a national political organization that promotes socialist candidates — describes himself as a “defender of the revolution.”
Nelson said he believes the United States has historically provoked Cuba into acts perceived as national security threats by the U.S. government. He said that Brothers to the Rescue, the group that organized the flights over Cuba that were shot down, are “CIA-trained thugs.”
Tamara Cuban, a junior from Puerto Rico, said she wants to research Cuba’s claim of having eliminated racism with the 1959 Communist revolution.
“I’ve always been interested in going,” she said.