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Making US-Cuba academic cooperation a reality

Later this month US President Barack Obama will visit Cuba as yet another step forward in the historic warming of United States diplomatic relations with the country. Citizens of both the US and Cuba will be watching eagerly, as he will be the first US president since Calvin Coolidge to travel the few hours by plane to our Caribbean neighbour, further solidifying this White House’s commitment to a new era in bilateral relations.

Among those most interested in seeing improved cooperation between our two countries are US colleges and universities, which see Cuba as an important partner for international mobility, knowledge sharing, joint research and other forms of collaboration.

This is a pivotal moment for the US-Cuba relationship and, as in most geopolitically charged situations, higher education plays a critical role in building scientific and intellectual bridges, bringing the brightest minds together to collaborate on common issues and connecting our students to forge a new chapter together.

Educational linkages will also be critical to developing talent and expertise that will foster economic development and pave the way for business relationships in the future.

The Institute of International Education, or IIE, actively supports the higher education community in advancing university-to-university engagement. The institute has a long history of leading delegations and partnership programmes for those colleges and universities interested in exploring research and academic cooperation in areas of mutual interest, such as agriculture, water management, environmental studies, energy/renewable energy and public health.

The frenzy has begun. Since the Department of the Treasury eased its regulations in December 2014, scores of US higher education institutions have been jumping at the opportunity to work in Cuba, mostly to send groups of students on faculty-led study abroad programmes.

The University of Havana alone has an enormous backlog of requests for joint projects, and other universities, especially in Havana, are now being contacted much more frequently by potential US partners.


For the first time, dozens of US college and university representatives joined together to exhibit and participate in Congreso Universidad 2016, the Cuban Ministry of Higher Education’s bi-annual international education conference, as part of a delegation led by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the IIE.

This year, the ministry even included a special session on US-Cuba higher education collaboration, chaired by the Cuban vice-minister of higher education.

This groundswell of interest and new energy towards Cuba is positive, albeit slightly haphazard. The big question now is whether this will actually lead to concrete results, given a number of challenges that may take years to overcome.

Here are a few factors, among many, that will determine how successful US-Cuba academic collaboration will be in the coming months and years:

  • Economic: First and foremost are the economic factors facing Cuba, with the embargo acting as one of the main barriers. Beyond preventing Cuban academics, researchers and students from gaining access to materials and other educational resources, the embargo has the detrimental corollary effect of straining the delicate relationships that US institutions hope to cultivate with Cuban partners.

    These relationships, by their very nature, require copious amounts of trust and transparency. Embargo aside, the low average Cuban income level also presents a major economic hurdle. Cuban students struggle to pay even application fees and postage, let alone university tuition.

  • Political: While the White House and the US Embassy in Havana are working to strengthen relationships and regulations enough to avoid any backsliding, the upcoming US presidential election is naturally a concern to institutions in both countries.

    The topic of Cuba, specifically, including relaxed Department of Treasury regulations, increased commerce and the Cuban Readjustment Act, are hot topics among a minefield of other immigration-related issues facing Democratic and Republican candidates alike.

  • Academic: Colleges which took part in the US higher education delegation that the IIE led in October 2015 found that the most feasible joint activities would be faculty level cooperation, with some possibilities for graduate student exchange.

    Undergraduate student exchange seemed much less favourable and, as mentioned previously, less feasible from a resource standpoint. The centralised higher education system in Cuba also renders developing agreements and gaining permission to collaborate an additional hurdle that US institutions need to consider.

We believe that the fruits of US-Cuba academic engagement will be well worth the wait if these impediments can be overcome. The few US institutions that have managed to maintain relationships with Cuban counterparts over the years have seen them yield valuable results, including joint publications, deep cultural experiences for US students, faculty exchanges and long-term relationships among key academics in both countries.

What needs to happen to make US-Cuba academic cooperation a reality? While the economic and political conditions are beyond the control of US higher education, there are some practical steps that US colleges and universities can take to start making academic engagement a reality.

The IIE has developed a few recommendations for institutions that wish to increase engagement with Cuba:

  • Remain up to speed on current OFAC – Office of Foreign Assets Control – regulations;
  • Come up with creative funding models for exchange programmes;
  • Explore institutions both in and outside of Havana;
  • Identify key champions on campus who will lead Cuba-related efforts.

Above all, however, is the need for coordination from the US side. Given the strained resources – both human and material – in Cuba, US higher education representatives need to consider joining forces with other institutions and organisations in the US in their outreach efforts so as not to overwhelm an already heavily burdened system.

To this end, the IIE will launch another International Academic Partnership Program later this year for campuses interested in forming ties with Cuban institutions.

It will take time and patience to see the unprecedented progress in US-Cuba relations come to fruition on all levels, but we’re already seeing a number of positive changes.

It is the responsibility of the higher education community to work responsibly and diligently to advance these growing ties by creating meaningful academic opportunities in both countries and fostering mutual understanding at a time when it is most critical.

Clare Banks leads the International Academic Partnership Programs at the Institute of International Education. Details of its Cuba programme can be found here.
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