For a brief period in Dec. 2013, national media engaged in a speculative frenzy over President Obama’s spontaneous handshake with Cuban president Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. None anticipated that just a year later, on Dec. 17, 2014, the two leaders would announce that a prolonged deliberative process of which that handshake was a small part had restored diplomatic ties between their countries. The implications of this new relationship are already being felt by cultural exchange agencies, ordinary travelers, Cubans living in both countries, and, perhaps soon, students on the Sarah Lawrence-Havana program.
Although the new rules for travel between the US and Cuba announced on Jan. 16 do not allow for regular tourism, anyone traveling to the island for one of twelve approved reasons (among them education, research, journalism, business, religious activities) may do so on U.S. airlines without applying for a license from the Treasury department. In addition, travelers are no longer restricted in the amount of money they can spend while visiting; they can bring back up to $400 in goods and $100 in alcohol and tobacco, and people with relatives in Cuba can wire them up to $2,000 per quarter, more than double the previous level.
It comes as no surprise that the first phase of diplomatic reform should occur through tourism, as there has long existed an infrastructure in Cuba for tourists separate from that for its citizens. In 1991, Cuba entered a prolonged economic crisis as a result of losing its Eastern European markets. Half of the population at the time was born after 1959, and therefore experienced little of the Revolution that had saved much of the previous generation from the third world poverty that has befallen much of Latin America. The lack of economic opportunity stirred consistent unrest among this large youth population, causing the government to respond with repression while at the same time creating cultural exchanges and tourist attractions as a means of compensating for the loss of economic activity. On any given night in Havana, the only restaurants open late at night were those tailor-made for tourists and Salsa was essentially the only music one could see live. (Che Guevara’s grandson Canek Sanchez, who died on Tuesday, Jan. 20, provides an eloquent description of this state of affairs in Marc Cooper’s article “Roll Over, Che Guevara”).
This cultural-exchange infrastructure allowed for a greater openness that SLC utilized to establish its program in 2001. Much of the program’s extensive arts and social science curriculum has been made possible through partnership’s with the island’s social, as well as educational, institutions - from the Centro de Estudios Demográficos, which specially designed a seminar for SLC students, to the ministry of culture-run Instituto Superior de Artes to the Asociación Nacional de Agricultores Pequeños, which provides student housing. Indeed, the Fundación del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano, founded in 1985 by Gabriel García Márquez, maintains various programs exclusively for U.S. students. Several other colleges -- among them Tulane, Hampshire, Harvard and Lewis & Clark -- have established a presence in Cuba by building on SLC’s foundation. Princeton and the University of Delaware are slated to initiate programs this year. Whether or not a surge of new programs arises from the U.S. and Cuba’s normalized relations, SLC seems to deserve some credit for forging a basis for such programs on the island.
What matters now for future study-abroad students is how the new relations will affect their experience. The Obama administration is already encouraging U.S. telecom and Internet companies to set up a Cuban internet infrastructure. Other policy changes – beyond greater ease of travel – that have already begun include: greater remittances for microbusiness, U.S.-funded projects for entrepreneurial training, and access for U.S. companies to Cuban trade. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has already announced his intention to lead a trade mission to the country. The ability to witness these new structures taking shape and their impact on Cuban society makes for a truly exciting prospect for study abroad students, but it may also be disconcerting. After all, one of Cuba’s main draws as an educational destination is the experience of a different societal framework from that of any western country. While these developments may be Cuba’s best chance to end its reliance on tourism and recover from the lost opportunity of the last twenty years, they may also diminish what makes Cuba a special place for international study.
At this point, however, one can only speculate. Negotiations that will map out the practical consequences of normalized U.S.-Cuba relations have only just begun. The only certainty so far is that there will be many more student suitcases packed with bottles of Havana Club flowing into the U.S.
By Sam Harwood ’15