By DeWayne Wickham | USA Today
Just as the lingering Cold War freeze that hangs over relations between Cuba and the United States is reaching a new low, Secretary of State Colin Powell has warmed things up a bit.
Days before tighter restrictions on travel to Cuba went into effect last week, Powell quietly agreed to tweak the new rules to allow a small group of U.S. students attending medical school on the island to continue to do so.
Nearly 80 U.S. students — mostly black and Hispanic — are enrolled in Cuba’s Latin American Medical School. Located on the outskirts of Havana on the campus of the country’s old naval academy, it has more than 3,000 students from Africa, Central and South America, plus the U.S. contingent.
The Cuban government, which has offered to provide a free medical-school education annually for up to 500 students from disadvantaged communities in this country, pays the full cost of tuition, housing and meals for the U.S. students. Under the old travel restrictions, these students were exempted from the Cuba travel ban because their stay was funded by the Cuban government — not payments from this country. But under the new rules, this “fully hosted” category expires on Aug. 1.
The students are attending school in Cuba “because our constituents could not ó and still cannot ó afford the high cost of medical education in the United States,” 28 black and Hispanic members of Congress said in a letter to Powell late last month. They asked him to ensure that the students “be permitted to continue their studies uninterrupted.”
That’s exactly what Powell has done. After reading their missive, he scribbled on the letter: “We ought to find a way to fix this,” according to a State Department spokesman. A special education-travel license is being hurriedly written to ensure that current and future students can take advantage of this offer, the spokesman said. “Our goal is to get the regulation change out on the street by July 15.”
For that, Powell deserves some thanks. In the past, I’ve taken him to task for the bad acts I thought he committed. Now I owe him a few words of praise for doing the right thing in this case.
Ideally, Powell should have left the old fully hosted travel category in place. But the compromise that he approved fixes an immediate problem.
“He did the right thing,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who wrote the letter to the secretary of State. “This case was very compelling. Students should not be penalized by election-year politics.”
Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., said: “Clearly the whole Cuban policy is based on Miami politics. Powell is taking something of a chance of offending the Miami crowd, but he is doing what is in the best interest of most Americans.”
Under the old rules, Cuban-Americans could return to the island once a year and take as much as $3,000 to aid family members. The new rules limit them to one visit every three years ó and just $300 to give to relatives on the island.
The Bush administration’s decision to tighten the screws on those who want to travel to Cuba panders to those politically active conservative Cuban-Americans who helped him win in Florida in 2000 ó and who want to end Fidel Castro’s 45-year regime at any cost.
Powell ultimately will have to shoulder some of the blame for the Bush administration’s Cuba policies.
But for now he deserves to be lauded for not allowing U.S. medical school students in Cuba to become the collateral damage of those bad ideas.
DeWayne Wickham writes weekly for USA TODAY