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Federal court upholds limits on study in Cuba

The Brown in Cuba program won't change following a federal appeals court's Nov. 4 dismissal of a lawsuit against academic travel restrictions to Cuba. But many professors expressed disappointment and frustration over an issue that's been simmering since 2004.

That year, the Bush administration placed new restrictions on the types of programs American universities may conduct in Cuba, effectively eliminating the vast majority of programs. The new policy required that all programs last longer than 10 weeks, barred universities from accepting any outside students into their programs and permitted only fully tenured professors to teach in Cuba.

Two of these restrictions changed everything for Wayne Smith, an adjunct professor in political science at Johns Hopkins University. Smith was the director of the school's University of Havana exchange program - until the 2004 regulations forced its cancellation.

Smith said the program used to take students to Cuba for three weeks in January or June.

"That went off very well - the students liked" the program, said Smith, a former diplomat who led the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1979 to 1982. He said the short time frame worked because it didn't interfere with Hopkins students' graduation requirements.

Johns Hopkins' program wasn't the only program to be shut down - Associate Professor of History James Green, who helped found Brown's Cuba program, said the new 10-week minimum dropped the number of programs nationally from over a hundred to about a dozen.

In a 2004 Miami address to Cuban-American leaders, Treasury Secretary John Snow said these shorter duration programs "had been abused for trips that amounted to little more than tourist travel, thus undermining the intentions of the U.S. sanctions against Cuba." The administration sanctions U.S. tourist travel to Cuba in order to keep American dollars out of the Cuban economy, which may potentially weaken its Communist government and force a transition to democracy.

Smith vehemently disagrees that academic travel constitutes tourism - he said the government "couldn't point to a single case of abuse" - and decided to protest the restrictions.

Smith said the Bush administration only implemented the new rules because 2004 was an election year, and because the preisdent thought they would bolster his Cuban-American voting base.

"People thought Bush wasn't doing enough to bring down Castro, so he came up with these cockamamie restrictions as if that was going to change something," he said.

In late 2004, Smith became a founding co-chair of the Emergency Coalition to Defend Educational Travel, a group of professors and supporters who have tried taking legal action to reverse the Bush administration's restrictions. In 2006, ECDET unsuccessfully sued the U.S. Treasury Department in a federal district court and decided to appeal.

Following the appeal's dismissal by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, ECDET lawyer and Task Force Coordinator Robert Muse said further attempts don't look promising.

"We're running out of legal recourse at this point," Muse said. He said the next step would be to take the case to the Supreme Court, which is "really a long shot."

Muse called the restrictions "unconstitutional," saying they denied American citizens their First Amendment rights.

"This administration's aggression towards the constitution is something I find quite interesting," he said. Muse said the court simply deferred to the President in this case, with the judges essentially finding no reason to disagree with the executive branch's foreign policies.

"Astonishingly, the courts questioned whether this was a case of academic freedom," Muse said, adding he couldn't think of a case that involved it more.

Equally as upsetting as the judges' dismissal, according to Muse, was the lack of universities' support for ECDET's case. Though individual professors joined the Coalition, not a single university would sign on. Muse said he approached many "private, prestigious institutions" asking for support, but they were "afraid of losing federal grant money if they challenge these conditions."

"The judges in each stage in this case have commented on the lack of institutional support," Muse said. He would not name which schools he looked to for support, but said Brown was not among them.

Esther Whitfield, an assistant professor of comparative literature and the only ECDET member among Brown's faculty, said she wants today's students to have the same opportunities she did. Whitfield, who teaches Cuban literature, spent an undergraduate semester in Cuba, and also studied there in the late '90s.

"It's a shocking experience," Whitfield said. "It looks completely different to much of the Western world because it's thrown out capitalist corporations." But she thinks there's more at stake than Cuba's political uniqueness.

"It's a question of individual freedoms," Whitfield said.

Kendall Brostuen, director of international programs, agreed, saying, "It's one thing to have a textbook knowledge of another place, and another to be on the ground."

"Cuba's at a pivotal time in its history," Brostuen said. He says the goal of the semester-long Brown in Cuba program is to erase "the boundary between cultural awareness and cultural experience."

Currently in its first semester, the program has been successful thus far, according to Brostuen. "There's a lot of student interest looking ahead to next year," he said. Because Brown's program lasts well over 10 weeks, the 2004 restrictions do not affect it.

Smith, Muse and the other professors whose programs were cut can only hope that the incoming Obama administration will rescind Bush's restrictions. Obama hasn't yet said anything specific about Cuba, but has suggested he will ease U.S. travel restrictions and allow family members to travel back and forth. Smith will hold a press conference in December to lobby for a policy change with the coming administration. He said he's hopeful that Obama will lift the academic travel limitations.

"These can be removed with the stroke of a pen," Smith said.


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