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Colleges see opportunity in U.S.-Cuba opening, but treading carefully

Colleges see opportunity in U.S.-Cuba opening, but treading carefully
Amid the sensitive politics of the U.S-Cuba breakthrough and the gulf
between both countries over questions of academic freedom, American
colleges and universities are interested but cautious.
BY EMMA BACCELLIERI
McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON
As Cuba and the United States begin to normalize relations, interest is
keen on both sides to strike academic partnerships as well.

But amid the sensitive politics of the U.S-Cuba breakthrough and the
gulf between the countries over questions of academic freedom, American
colleges and universities must tread carefully.

‘Anything with Cuba can be controverisal,’ says Jorge Duany, director of
Florida International University’s Cuban research Institute. | ROBERTO
KOLTUN EL NUEVO HERALD FILE
“Anything with Cuba can be controversial,” said Jorge Duany, director of
Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute.

The interest, however, is clearly there.

Some 375 American students were in Cuba during the 2010-11 school year
when President Barack Obama eased travel restrictions to allow academic
work. During 2012-13, there were 1,633, according to the Institute of
International Education.

Obama further loosened the rules earlier this year, allowing more
expansive work, and several universities have begun formal research and
teaching partnerships with their Cuban counterparts.

Florida International University in Miami-Dade is among the schools that
would like to establish a strong Cuban presence. The university hosts
one of the nation’s leading centers for Cuban studies, and academic work
on the island has long been an attractive prospect.

Its ultimate goal is to build a campus there — maybe even two — although
FIU President Mark Rosenberg told the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce
last week that democracy would have to be restored first, and a Cuban
branch is “a long way off.”

For now, the school is focusing on technical fields, such as computer
science, business administration and architecture, disciplines less
likely to trigger politically charged questions of free speech and
academic freedom.

Auburn University in Alabama signed an academic exchange pact with the
Agrarian University of Havana and the Cuban National Center for Animal
and Plant Health last month. It creates a research partnership, as well
as an easy channel for study abroad for students and faculty at both
institutions.

It was faculty from Cuba and other Caribbean countries that pushed to
bring Auburn to the island, said Henry Fadamiro, assistant dean and
director of global programs for Auburn’s College of Agriculture. The
academic benefits quickly became clear – particularly the opportunity to
learn about sustainable agriculture from a Cuban system that does not
use pesticides.

But academic freedom is a concern. With the Cuban education system, as
well as the news media, completely controlled by the government, “the
concept of academic freedom we have here doesn’t really apply,” Duany said.

“You don’t have academic freedom in Cuba right now,” said Carlos Ponce,
director for Latin America programs at Freedom House, an organization
that researches political freedom and human rights. “We’re talking about
the possibility of something related to academic freedom in the future
in Cuba.”

This is especially a concern for long-term programs and research or
teaching partnerships. Cuban professors can be arrested for expressing
views not supported by the government and students can be expelled ? and
American faculty and students there face the same environment.
Particularly with fields that are more politically charged, in the
social sciences or humanities, the outlook is somewhat bleak.

“You can have opportunities for discrimination, retaliation, harassment
? that’s a fact,” Ponce said. “You’re going to encounter the same
problem with any closed environment you work with. Until Cuba improves
the environment for speech, it’s going to be quite a challenge all the
time.”

He noted concerns that the Cuban government uses some exchange programs
with the U.S. as propaganda tools. But as travel restrictions ease
further and more academic programs are established, Ponce said it likely
will become more difficult for the Cuban government to monitor American
students and so strictly regulate their experience.

“Isolation and a lack of engagement with people at these institutions is
not an option,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, an
advocacy group for normalization of relations. “We tried that for 50
years. If we want to see a better Cuba and a better United States, we’ve
clearly proven that isolation does not work.”

American universities must also keep in mind the politics of sealing a
partnership with Cuba, particularly on Capitol Hill, where the U.S.-Cuba
opening is divisive. Supporters say education is a way to build bridges.

“The way to bring Castro down is to expand trade and open up Cuba,” said
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “It makes no sense to close them off.”

But in the debates over whether to keep the trade embargo and block open
travel to the island, the question of education has been largely left out.

“I don’t have any problem and think it could be a very good thing,” said
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., noting the academic benefits that the
Auburn-University of Havana partnership could bring both to his home
state and to Cuba.

In the end, said John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for
Reconciliation and Development, a nongovernmental organization working
to normalize relations with Cuba, “Everything between Cuba and the
United States right now involves developing trust.”

Source: Colleges see opportunity in U.S.-Cuba opening, but treading
carefully | Miami Herald Miami Herald –
http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/education/article25443661.html

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