On Dec. 17, 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that there would be several significant changes to U.S.-Cuba relations. In the wake of this announcement, speculation has circulated regarding whether or not these changes will have a positive or negative effect on Cuba and the tricky situation existing between the United States and the island nation.
The College of Charleston boasts a 15-year-old program that takes students to Cuba for the Spring semester. Additionally, the Honors College and the Center for Civic Engagement with the Bonner Leader Program have taken advantage of the College’s unique opportunity to travel to Cuba legally on an educational visa. The College of Charleston is one of the few universities in the United States that offers such an opportunity.
As changes take shape, there is much at stake; the collapse of recent bettered relations is certainly possible. With this uncertainty of the future dynamic between Cuba and the United States, the College of Charleston is not deterred in its efforts to bring students to the island nation. CisternYard News spoke to Colleen Sullivan, College of Charleston alum and Center for Civic Engagement Assistant Bonner Leader Coordinator, about her upcoming program to Cuba as a part of the Center for Civic Engagement’s Alternative Spring Break Program to get a greater understanding of how these changes could impact the College’s programs as well as the general trajectory of U.S.-Cuba relations.
A Brief History of U.S.-Cuban Relations
Cuba and the United States have shared tenuous relations since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. By October 1960, the United States placed its five decade old embargo policy on the Cuban nation. Between 1960 and 2014, Cuba’s economy has been strangled by offensive American economic policies that prohibit the flow of Cuban goods into the United States. These policies also blockaded all U.S. citizens from traveling to Cuba by banning Americans from spending money there. Furthermore, in 1982, Cuba landed itself on the U.S. list of terrorist countries, resulting in a Cuban rejection of a U.S. diplomatic presence. While the United States has maintained a special interests section in Cuba since this rejection, Cuba and the United States have officially had severed relations since 1982.
When Barack Obama took office in 2008, he made informal claims that he had interests in improving relations between the two countries. On Dec. 17, 2014, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced jointly that the countries were taking significant strides to normalize relations. This revolutionary change from an essentially frozen policy has stirred both excitement and anger within the United States. However, the trade embargo and travel ban still remain in effect. While travel to Cuba from the United States has become easier in the past decade, special permission is still required. Only travelers with preapproved Cuba-specific visas have been given permission to visit and spend money in the country legally. Current changes to policy will likely not open the door for free travel in the near future, but will certainly change the dynamic for traveling, potentially making it much easier for programs at the College of Charleston to exist.
What changes are being made?
The United States hopes to open an embassy in Havana by April and claims that if this process is slowed, chances of normalizing relations will be hindered. However, the Cuban government intends to reject the opening of an American embassy on their soil until Cuba is removed from the terrorist nation list. This poses a challenge as President Obama is doubtful that this can happen by April.
Despite challenges to the policy’s vitality, several key changes are being made.
1. Initially, changes were inspired by the release of the Cuban Five by the U.S. government and the release of many American political prisoners, namely Alan Gross, by the Cuban government. This prisoner swap marked historic cooperation between the two countries.
2. In mid-January, the United States took steps to simplify the process for traveling to Cuba legally. Rather than having to undergo a lengthy approval process through the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Americans wanting to travel to Cuba will be able to buy flights directly through major airlines; the only requirement will be to select the purpose of travel. General tourism will still be illegal. However, travelers can go for more specific purposes, such as education and business.
3. Regulations regarding remittances will be loosened, allowing for greater money to be sent to family members of American citizens in Cuba.
4. The number and type of categories available for legal, approved travel have expanded to include 12 categories.
5. Economic changes will allow low-level American products to be sold in Cuba and increase in U.S.-Cuba business relations.
6. Travelers to Cuba will be permitted to bring back specified amounts of Cuban goods, including rum and cigars.
7. Efforts will be made to expand access to the Internet in Cuba through joint U.S.-Cuba efforts.
While this list of changes is not exhaustive, it offers a general overview of the framework that is serving as the basis for a new period of U.S.-Cuba relations. These changes could potentially initiate a period of economic growth on the island along with increased cultural exchange. However, these changes could also backfire, as the road to recovery between these two countries is sure to be tricky.
College of Charleston as a facilitator of good relations
Colleen Sullivan is leading a group of students to Cuba on an Alternative Spring Break trip with the Bonner Leader Program in March. Sullivan participated in College of Charleston’s Spring 2014 study abroad trip to Cuba, prompting her interest in U.S.-Cuba relations and her passion for sharing her experience with College of Charleston students.
Due to the current travel regulations, Sullivan has partnered with Conscious Cuba, a group based in Dallas that specializes in bringing groups of American students to Cuba. While Sullivan was not directly responsible for securing travel permits, she worked in close coordination with Conscious Cuba employees.
Sullivan admitted that the process of securing permission through the U.S. Department of the Treasury is a difficult process. Students must submit their passports much earlier than when applying for a typical travel visa. However, once the new changes come into effect, securing legal travel status “could be as easy as clicking an option from a drop-box,” Sullivan said.
When asked about the nature of the changes being made to U.S.-Cuba policy, Sullivan referenced an on-campus talk she heard by Julia Sweig, a Cuban policy expert who has visited the College of Charleston on various occasions.
The future of the travel ban and the embargo seems entirely unknown. “I don’t know how things will change,” Sullivan said. “Julia Sweig…was just as surprised by the sudden changes as the rest of us.” There is evidence to support that diplomatic talks have been occurring over the past nine months but much is left unexplained.
Despite debate about what has occurred, one thing remains certain according to Sullivan: “It’s the effort of programs like our College of Charleston Study Abroad to Cuba that have made an impact on our new relationship with Cuba. The students that go down to Cuba and become inspired to share their experiences are motivating positive change.”
Over the past 15 years, the College has established positive relations with Cuba through a variety of programs. For example, professor Humberto Miranda, who lives in Havana, has traveled from Cuba to Charleston to teach an Express II course in the fall semester for years. In addition to the traditional semester program, the Honors College has brought students to Havana during a Maymester term and Sullivan will bring students for an Alternative Spring Break program.
Despite this exchange, Sullivan explained that it is very difficult to get in touch with people from Cuba after returning to the United States. When asked if she could find a Cuban to speak to CisternYard News, she simply stated, “You know how it is with Cuba.” Sullivan explained that the sheer difficulty of contacting someone in Cuba in any reliable way exposes the core of the challenges faced by the two countries.
Sullivan expressed an optimistic future for the College’s involvement in sending students to Cuba. “Both the College of Charleston and Conscious Cuba want to continue working with each other. We hope this Alternative Spring Break program can be sustainable,” she said. “We want students in Cuba every year.” As the dynamics between Cuba and the United States evolve, Sullivan is confident that it will be those who have traveled to Cuba that will drive the changes we are seeing in Obama’s Dec. 17 announcement.
This article first appeared in the February 2015 issue of The Yard.