Wednesday, August 5, 2009

BLOCKADE ON CUBA STIFLES INTELLECTUAL EXCHANGE

(The Obama administration has begun to make modest changes in United States policy toward Cuba , such as easing travel to the island by Cuban Americans and transferring money to relatives, but the economic, cultural, and educational blockade of the island remains. The mainstream press continues to publish decontextualized accounts of "dictatorship," "bureaurcracy," and"economic chaos" on the island.

For example, The New York Times published a story recently pridefully announcing that with US Homeland Security support "6,000" Cuban doctors and other health professionals have fled the island or their humanitarian assignments in other countries to come to the United States since 2002. The article, by Mirta Ouito, "Doctors in Cuba Start Over in the U.S."August 4, 2009, does mention that Cuba has sent 185,000 health professionals to 103 countries over the last 50 years. But she writes: "Yet for many Cuban doctors, who earn the equivalent of $25 a month, the lure of a life of freedom and opportunities in the United States is too strong to resist." She sites an American Medical Association official who estimates that one of four doctors in the United States was trained overseas. While the author describes the difficulties Cuban medical defectors face in pursuing their profession, she seemed undisturbed by the irony of a US government program designed to attract trained health professionals from doing important work in countries of the Global South at the same time that the most developed country in the world has to increasingly rely on international doctors to meet the needs of the American people.

Below is reprinted a 2004 article that described one example of literally hundreds of academic exchanges that flourished before former President George Bush tightened the blockade of Cuba. The 50-year blockade must end and egalitarian exchanges between the people of North America and Cuba must be reestablished for the benefit of all).

Harry Targ
June 17, 2004


Fourteen students and two professors returned to Purdue University on June 9 from an 18 day study abroad trip to Cuba. The students, from the Schools of Agriculture and Liberal Arts, completed an interdisciplinary course called “Experiencing Cuba.”The course included four days of formal instruction at the Agrarian University of Havana, an institution much like Purdue. In addition site visits were made to a tobacco farm and factory, an urban garden where the new Cuban commitment to sustainable agriculture was illustrated, an ecological preserve, and a botanical garden specializing in exhibiting and studying tropical plants. Students also toured a special facility for Cubans with mental and physical disabilities. As to politics, culture, and history, students visited museums specializing in Cuban history, religion, and the arts. The Purdue group had occasion to interact with Cubans in many places including the university, in neighborhoods, and in other urban and rural settings. The trip was capped by a six-day 700 mile ride across the island from Havana city to Santiago de Cuba on the Caribbean.

The course was organized by faculty in the School of Agriculture and Liberal Arts as part of a project to link Purdue University to appropriate academic institutions on the island. The project would link Purdue and Cuban faculty with interests in collaborative research, graduate students who wish to pursue research projects involving Cuba, and undergraduate students who wish to study in Cuba. It is hoped that at some time Cuban faculty and students will be able to study at Purdue University when United States policy toward Cuba changes.

The organizers of the Purdue/Cuba project launched the program because Cuba has had special historic ties, positive and negative,with the United States that warrant study. Also, Cuba for the last 45 years has been a social laboratory for the development of diverse social, economic, and cultural policies that interest peoples around the world as well as the United States. For example, Cuba’s health and educational programs have long been of interest. In the 1990s Cuba’s adoption of policies to promote sustainable agriculture have been seen by some as a possible model for other developing countries.

The Purdue study abroad course in Cuba was not among the first. In fact, over the last decade the Treasury Department has issued education licenses to over 750 colleges, universities, and high schools to develop such courses. During the Purdue visit to the island, for example, there were faculty/student groups from the University of Georgia, the University of Charleston, Duke, and William and Mary. A University of Michigan group was to arrive in June.

Treasury Department licensing of university programs is required because the United States has had a 40-year economic embargo and travel ban on free and open exchange with the island nation. Established by President’s Eisenhower and Kennedy, the embargo and travel ban were designed to cause economic and political chaos in Cuba that would lead to the collapse of its revolutionary government. Since the policy never led to the desired outcome, the U.S. in the 1990s began to modify the policy to let selective groups of people travel to Cuba, and in 2001 to allow so-called humanitarian sales of food products to the island on a pay-as-you go basis. U.S. academic institutions and other organized trips to the island would be authorized by Treasury if the programs had a clear educational purpose. Just during the first quarter of 2004, 1,300 Americans participated in 60 educational programs in Cuba.Despite the broad based support by liberals and conservatives,Democrats and Republicans to abolish the economic embargo and the travel ban, the Bush administration piece-by-piece has been eliminating the minimal educational and economic connections with the island.

In early May, 2004, the administration announced that it would accept a series of draconian recommendations from an appointed task force on Cuban policy to stimulate “regime change” in Cuba. Universities which in the past had been issued two-year licenses for educational travel would now have to apply for a new license each year. Educational programs shorter than a full semester would require special permission and would have to adopt the goal of U.S. policy toward Cuba, that is “regime change.” Faculty who engage in research on Cuba or who travel to the island to arrange for educational programs will be further limited in their right to travel.

Along with the efforts to eliminate the academic exchanges with Cuba, the new Bush policies cut dramatically the rights of Cuban Americans to travel to visit relatives on the island. Heretofore, they could travel once a year and such travel could be to visit extended family members. Now Cuban Americans can travel to the island only once every three years and to only visit parents or children. The amount of money Cuban Americans can send to their relatives on the island was radically cut as well.

In 2003, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which is charged with enforcing sanctions against several countries and terrorist networks and drug traffickers, as well as overseeing travel to Cuba, spent $3.3 million of its $21.2 million budget on Cuba. Similarly, the Department of Homeland Security has used extensive personnel and resources to interview travelers to and from the island. Enforcing the archaic ban on Cuba has used disproportionately large amounts of resources compared with the struggle against terrorism and drugs in the world.

Almost all the Purdue students who traveled and studied in Cuba reported that the experience was intellectually stimulating. While student evaluations of the strengths and weaknesses of the Cuban experiment varied, most shared the belief that free and open exchange of experiences between peoples is truly educational. It is time to end the U.S. blockade and travel ban on Cuba so that two peoples, so close and yet so far from each other, can learn from each other’s experiences.