Cantabs in Cuba

Harvard’s new exchange program will foster intercultural dialogue

When the then-recently triumphant Castro, a graduate of the University of Havana, came to Harvard in April of 1959, he addressed an enraptured audience, explaining his early desire to study here. Now, Castro’s alma mater will welcome Harvard students.

A lucky group of Harvard students will be able to escape the interminable New England winter for the tropical breezes and raucous tunes of Cuba, a country steeped in history, culture, and geopolitical significance. Earlier this week, Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) announced that it had been granted a license by the U.S. Treasury Department to establish a semester-long study abroad program at the University of Havana. DRCLAS is to be commended for its commitment to expanding study abroad opportunities, and for the 18 months of wrangling with Uncle Sam it took to receive the appropriate licensing. This opportunity is a welcome one for Harvard students, who have been unable to study in Cuba since the Bush administration tightened its travel restrictions in 2004.

The prospect of change in Cuba—presaged by Cuban President Fidel Castro’s delegating power to his brother, Raul, this past summer—makes this opportunity all the more timely. Harvard students can serve as cultural and ideological ambassadors to a country that has had only minimal contact with the U.S. in the past 45 years. The program plans to match Harvard undergraduates with a mentor from the network of 60 Cuban scholars that DRCLAS has built under its Cuban Studies research program since 1999. We hope that Harvard’s presence will open up avenues of dialogue previously unavailable to Americans and Cubans alike.

While this is not the first time Harvard students have ventured to Cuba—over 200 traveled there from 1998 to 2004—educational opportunities in Cuba have been severely limited in recent years. Regulations enacted in 2004 require students who wish to study abroad in Cuba to participate in a program directly administered by their home university. These new rules prevented Harvard undergraduates from enrolling in a program run by Butler University—a popular option for those interested in Cuba. Because study abroad programs often rely on students enrolling from multiple universities, most programs in Cuba (including Bulter’s) have been discontinued. As part of an economic embargo with the ostensible aim of encouraging democratization, the new regulations are nonsensical: They have a negligible impact on the Cuban economy while impoverishing its intellectual environment, as well as denying U.S. scholars the chance to learn more about the island state.

The DRCLAS program is only scheduled to run this spring, and Harvard’s license is limited to one year, with no guarantee of renewal from the Treasury Department. Uncertainty over the continuation of this valuable program speaks further to the misguided aim of recent restrictions. By granting only short-term licensing, the U.S. government complicates efforts to build stable links between American universities and their Cuban counterparts. Sustained academic exchanges are critical to bringing about an atmosphere more conducive to dialogue and criticism.

While students will be subject to myriad rules from both the U.S. and Cuban governments, this should not be a deterrent to Harvard students’ applying to the DRCLAS program. American students have gone to Cuba in the past without serious restrictions on their mobility. Concerns about academic freedom remain, especially in the social sciences, and prospective applicants to the program would benefit from some clarification about what sort of research and writing might land a student in hot water. But even if common sense (or dictorial rule) demands avoiding certain topics while in Cuba, opportunities for more critical research and writing will remain upon return to Harvard.

Harvard’s new presence in Cuba comes on the heel of DRCLAS’s prodigious efforts in expanding study abroad opportunities for undergraduates, which currently include programs in Argentina and Chile. Harvard-administered study abroad programs have the added benefit of attracting students who might be otherwise suspicious of a program’s rigor. DRCLAS, along with the Office of International Programs, should continue to expand its own study abroad programs. We hope that Harvard’s program in Cuba will last beyond this semester, but in the mean time, we are thankful for the present opportunity.