BY WILFREDO CANCIO ISLA | El Nuevo Herald
The Cuban government has denied exit permits to about 30 Cuban college students who had been offered U.S. government-funded scholarships for academic programs at American academic institutions.
Not only did the students lose the chance to attend classes for free in the United States, but some were accused of ideologically losing their way and were expelled from their colleges in Cuba. Those who were members of the Communist Youth Union were booted out, several students said.
``I’ve been told that I have been expelled from the university and that I have a hearing pending with the Communist Youth, where I am to receive a temporary sanction due to the fact that, in self-criticism, I acknowledged having applied for the scholarship,’’ wrote a student selected for a leadership program in the United States.
The student, who asked to remain anonymous, said there is deep frustration among the selected students.
``Our state of mind couldn’t be worse. We feel unprotected. Nobody will defend us nor challenge the Cuban government to claim our right to exercise the option any university student in the world has,’’ the young woman said from Havana.
This was the first year that Cuban students were included in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs program, which provides scholarships for students throughout the world to attend American universities.
When word of the scholarships got out in Cuba, the U.S. Interests Section in Havana was deluged with more 750 applications.
``We were disappointed in the government of Cuba not allowing Cuban students to participate in our education programs,’’ a U.S. State Department official said, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the incident. ``We had gotten the word out about the programs through pamphlets and word of mouth . . . and the candidates were selected based on merit. When we tried to explain that, they said, `No, we don’t know who these kids are, and so we’re saying no to all of them.
``It was a real opportunity to try something different. It was a missed opportunity.’‘
Bisa Williams, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, said it was an unfortunate turn of events.
``It would be unfortunate if students suffered retaliation simply for seeking to take advantage of educational exchange opportunities,’’ she said.
The U.S. State Department noted, however, that the Cuban government did not rule out participation in the future.
The students could have attended a one-year community college program in fields such as agricultural science, business management, information technology, communications and journalism. The program also includes a summer course on public leadership.
The universities were located in Arizona, Tennessee and Idaho, but none in Florida.
Seventeen were selected for the first program and 11 for the second one.
But Cuban authorities denied their visa requests to travel to the United States and began an evaluation program at their university centers.
A few months ago, officials from the Cuban Ministry of Higher Education, members of the Communist Party and leaders of the Communist Youth Union opened an evaluation process as part of ``restructuring the political-ideological work’’ at higher education institutions.
Among the evaluation-session topics: ``the courageous ideological combat’’ among students, such as applying for U.S. scholarships.
``A sample of the actions taken by the current U.S. administration in its efforts to ideologically permeate university students is to offer them scholarships through the Interests Section to train them in the area of leadership,’’ reads an internal document of the Ministry of Higher Education obtained by El Nuevo Herald.
``Applying for such scholarships reveals, at least, an unacceptable ideological inconsistency. More serious yet is the case of students selected by the Interests Section who upheld their decisions even after a political discussion with them.’‘
The document, released in July, acknowledges that students and professors longed ``to obtain personal benefits’’ and suffered ``a confusion and poor understanding of the basic pillars that sustain the ideology of our revolution.’‘
Sources in Cuba said the shift followed a shake-up at the Ministry of Education, and the replacement of minister Juan Vela Valdés.
``We are involved in a new process of control and ideological purges that resembles the worst moments and stages of the past,’’ said a University of Havana professor who spoke with El Nuevo Herald on the condition of not revealing his name for fear of retaliation. The Cuban government rejection comes at a moment in which the Obama Administration has encouraged cultural and academic exchanges with the island. The Cuban government, U.S. officials acknowledge, has done little in return.
The Cuban Interests Section in Washington did not respond to an El Nuevo Herald message on the topic.