By Gary Marx | Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent
Bowing to criticism that it could get sucked into the battle between Washington and Havana, Chicago’s Loyola University has suspended a U.S. government-funded program to provide English language courses to adults in a poor Havana neighborhood, a university spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Since 1999, students at the Jesuit school have paid their own expenses to teach English for two weeks during the summer at a Catholic community center in Cuba.
But last fall Loyola signed a $425,000 grant with the U.S. government to continue the courses under a program managed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that seeks to spur political change on the communist island.
In Cuba, even a modest and benign educational program like Loyola’s garners scrutiny because it is being financed by the U.S. at a time when relations between the two nations are at their lowest point in years.
Cuban authorities denounce any U.S. government-funded program as an effort to undermine their government, and Cubans who participate are subject to a prison sentence.
Maeve Kiley, a Loyola spokeswoman, said the university informed faculty and students early last month that its Cuba program was suspended “at the request of our Cuban partners.”
“Loyola’s recent reception of grant money in support of this program from USAID has generated considerable criticism,” Kiley wrote in an e-mail to the Tribune. “Loyola is sensitive to these concerns as well as to the needs of our partners in Cuba.”
“The nature of this program is not and has not been political,” she added.
Rev. Charles Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, a Washington group representing 28 schools including Loyola, said he agreed with Loyola’s decision even if it meant ending a program that provided a valuable skill to Cubans.
“Clearly it would be helpful that people in Cuba learn to speak English but without a political agenda in mind,” he said. “The more that a political agenda intrudes, the more compromised the good effort becomes.”
Misael Quinones, coordinator at the Centro LaSalle, where about 70 Cubans participated in Loyola’s workshops annually, said the university’s language program is no longer wanted. He declined to comment further.
A U.S. diplomat in Cuba said the decision to cancel the program was understandable, given “a paranoid Cuban government which sees a boogeyman under every rock.”
The Loyola program was part of an expanding U.S. government effort that President Bush has said is aimed at speeding Cuba’s transition to democracy.
In 2005, the U.S. government is allocating $14 million—on top of the nearly $9 million that was appropriated—to fund non-profit groups and universities involved in various programs, including providing food and other support to opposition figures and political prisoners.