U.S. students get rare look
Visits are sharply down as Bush tightens embargo.
By Anita Snow
The Associated Press
HAVANA · Molly Morris didn't realize how isolated Cubans are from the United States until a worker at her hotel asked for a U.S. map to see where she and other visiting American college students came from.
"It just about broke my heart," said the 19-year-old from Houston, who didn't have a U.S. map and didn't know where to find one.
Cubans' isolation from the United States has sharpened over the past two years as the U.S. government has increasingly choked off travel to the communist-run nation.
As the Bush administration tightens the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, students, academics, religious groups and even Cuban-Americans with family on the island increasingly have found their travel restricted.
"They're trying to find more ways to get tough with Cuba," said Philip Brenner, a Cuba expert and associate dean at American University in Washington, D.C.
"This is a foretaste of more restrictions that will prevent Cubans and Americans from dealing with each other at all," added Brenner, who helped arrange the four-month visit to Cuba by nine students from the university.
The students said they were at times puzzled by the contradictions between Cuban government rhetoric about the benefits of a socialist society and Cubans' lack of material wealth.
"I've traveled a lot and for me it has been very frustrating," said 21-year-old Jessica Skinner, of Grand Junction, Colo. "I came here being very anti-embargo and now that I'm here, I'm confused."
Such exposure to the complex Cuban reality is increasingly rare.
In June 2004, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed restrictions requiring that academic trips to Cuba be at least 10 weeks long, eliminating popular one- and two-week visits that universities once offered on everything from salsa dancing and bird watching to colonial architecture.
Treasury officials had complained that the shorter visits were often tourism disguised as academic tours and were enriching the government of President Fidel Castro, who has been in power for 47 of his 79 years.
U.S. licenses for academic travel to Cuba have fallen from 181 in 2003, before the new restrictions took effect, to 69 last year, Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said.
Among the trips halted was an annual cruise-ship visit by the University of Pittsburgh's Semester at Sea, which brought hundreds of students for trips of a few days that often included a face-to-face meeting with Castro himself.
At the same time, authorized visits by relatives of people living on the island were sliced from once annually to once every three years -- a move criticized by some Cuban-Americans.
A Cuban report released last fall said 57,145 Cuban-Americans visited Cuba in 2004, compared with 115,050 in 2003 -- a 50 percent drop.
For other Americans, the number of visits fell from 85,809 in 2003 to 51,027 in 2004, the report said. The numbers continued to decrease in 2005, it said. Cuba has not yet released figures for 2005.
Castro and other Cuban officials have criticized the travel crackdown, saying the Bush administration is violating the constitutional rights of American citizens.
The United States has also tightened travel by Cuban academics to the United States. In March, it denied visas to about 55 Cuban academics who had hoped to attend the Latin American Studies Association congress in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 2004, U.S. visas were also denied for more than 60 Cuban scholars who wanted to attend the congress held that year in Las Vegas.
The Bush administration has also tightened restrictions on American religious groups wanting to visit Cuba.
But for now, the American University students are getting a glimpse of a country unfamiliar to most Americans, who don't have the means or the time to make an academic visit lasting at least 10 weeks.
The students, who arrived in January, are studying Cuban history, culture, international relations and Spanish at the University of Havana.
"Ten weeks gives you a much better look at the country," said 20-year-old
Jake Patoski of Austin, Texas. "But it rules out a lot of Americans who
now cannot come here."