This story was written by Aaron Bruner, The California Aggie
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently upheld a lower court's ruling against a group of academics that had challenged restrictions affecting academic travel to Cuba.
The approximately 200 study abroad programs in Cuba before the restrictions were put in place have since decreased to only a handful.
Building on the comprehensive trade embargo initiated in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy, the Bush Administration augmented existing regulations on Cuba in 2004 by banning short-term study trips of less than 10 weeks.
Additionally, colleges are prohibited from accepting students from other institutions to participate and only full-time, tenured professors are allowed to supervise trips.
The amendments were inspired by recommendations of the interagency Commission for Assistance to Free Cuba, established in 2003 by President Bush with the chief objective to "hasten and ease Cuba's democratic transition," according to the Commission's 2004 report.
Along with a discussion of how best to bring about the peaceful fall of the Cuban dictatorship, one of the Commission's secondary objectives was to strengthen enforcement of travel restrictions that had formerly been abused for personal and business reasons.
The Commission's 2004 report found that shorter length academic programs allowed for minimal cross-cultural interaction and too much free time, and subsequently implemented the academic program restrictions.
The University of California-Davis' own Quarter Abroad program to Cuba, which takes from 20 to 25 students each spring to the capital city of Havana, is unaffected by the travel restrictions, said Quarter Abroad coordinator Robin Ducatillon in an e-mail.
Since the Cuba program began - one year after the 2004 restrictions - the current requirements for groups traveling to Cuba do not limit UC-Davis abroad programs, she added.
"I can say that for the eight programs not run through Quarter Abroad, Cuba is the only country for which a license through the U.S. Department of Treasury is required," Ducatillo said.
Under the present regulations, the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control authorizes travel on a case-by-case basis. A general license is available for official government business and journalistic or professional research activities, according to OFAC guidelines which are available on the Treasury's Web site.
"Because the campus project is more than 10 weeks and we have a special license with the Department of the Treasury we have the go ahead," said Professor Beatriz Pesquera, who is co-leading the trip.
Although her first time leading the QA Cuba program, Pesquera has led several trips to Mexico through UC-Santa Barbara, and encourages students to travel abroad if possible, she said.
"Education abroad programs are extremely important," Pesquera said. "Students are really enriched by their experiences abroad."
Avani Modi, a UC-Davis student who attended the Cuba program last spring, said she felt very welcome and safe in Cuba, though American tourism there has become almost nonexistent.
"Because Cuba is a Communist country, there is so much surveillance and control [that] it's probably one of the safest countries in the world," she said. "They've gotten used to this level of safety and nonviolence so it has become part of their culture."
Modi even felt safe walking alone in the city at night, something many people couldn't say of most cities in the United States, she said.
Nevertheless, interested students should be aware of the differences in traveling to Cuba, said Pablo Ortiz, a UC-Davis music profesor who used to take a short-term program abroad to Cuba each year.
"You need to obtain a copy of the license and carry it with you to and from Cuba," he said. "Without a license you can be fined around $10,000."
American citizens are also forbidden to spend U.S. dollars in Cuba or import merchandise from Cuba into the U.S., Ortiz added.
Courses offered in the Quarter Abroad Cuba program will focus on gender and ethnic identity and will examine cultural issues in Cuba and Latin America.
Two classes each from the African American Studies and the Chicana/o studies departments will be taught by Professor Bettina Ng'weno and Professor Pesquera, respectively. In addition, a 2-unit Spanish course is required.