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Posted March 31, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Travel

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By Kelly Heyboer | Newhouse News Service

If all goes as planned, Joshua Knoblick will spend a few weeks this spring attending theater performances in Havana, drinking mojitos on a Cuban beach and (legally) smoking a few Cuban cigars.

The Ramapo College senior is not breaking the U.S. trade embargo. He is going to Cuba as one of a growing number of American college students embarking on study programs in the once-forbidden country.

“I’m 100 percent excited to go. Cuba has always held a fascination for me. It’s one of the parts of the world you’re not allowed to see if you’re an American,” said Knoblick, 23.

In May, Ramapo College in Mahwah will launch its new study program in the Communist nation. Knoblick and about 15 other undergraduates are expected to spend about two weeks studying Cuban filmmaking, culture and the arts in Havana and San Antonio de los Baos, a town about 20 miles outside the capital.

School officials believe Ramapo will be the only public college in New Jersey running an annual study-abroad program to Cuba, which has been largely closed to American tourists since the 1960s.

Ramapo spent nearly two years working out a deal with a Cuban school and getting permits from U.S. officials, said Steven Perry, dean of Ramapo’s School of Contemporary Arts and one of the administrators who traveled to Cuba to set up the program.

“I think it’s good for us to take students to Cuba,” Perry said. “It’s been such a mystery to us for so long I think people have preconceived notions about Cuba and what Cubans are like.”

The number of American students studying in Cuba has been growing steadily since the U.S. loosened the rules in the 1990s.

In the 2001-2002 school year, 1,279 U.S. students studied in Cuba, a 41 percent increase over the previous year, according to statistics compiled by the Institute of International Education, a national study-abroad group.

The University of Illinois, the University of North Carolina, DePaul University in Illinois and Contra Costa College in California are among the institutions offering Cuba programs. The study trips range from two-week cultural tours to full-semester academic courses.

In New Jersey, Princeton University also offers its students a chance to spend a semester at the University of Havana through a program run by Indiana’s Butler University.

Though students studying in Cuba still make up less than 1 percent of the number of U.S. students studying abroad, the country is slowly climbing the list of most popular destinations. Cuba currently ranks ahead of Russia, Brazil and Israel, according to the latest statistics.

That has worried some Cuban-American groups concerned that students are being shown a whitewashed version of the Western Hemisphere’s only Communist nation.

The Cuban American National Foundation, the powerful Miami-based anti-Castro group, favors only “purposeful” education programs in which part of the curriculum includes meeting with Cuban dissidents, said Joe Garca, the foundation’s executive director.

“This is the most repressive regime in the hemisphere,” Garca said. “What are we sending the kids there to study . oppressive totalitarian regimes?”

To set up a study-abroad program in Cuba, colleges and universities must apply for a three-year license from the U.S. Treasury Department. The schools must prove their programs are education-based and not fronts for tourism or commercial ventures.

Last year, federal officials began cracking down on some categories of education licenses to Cuba because many cultural exchange trips “often devolved into tourism,” said Molly Millerwise, a U.S. Treasury Department spokeswoman.

The crackdown has left many college and universities with legitimate Cuba study programs worried their educational licenses may not be renewed under the Bush administration’s more stringent rules.

At Ramapo, college officials rushed to take full advantage of the school’s new, three-year license.

About 18 students have expressed interest in enrolling in the course, school officials said. The three-credit class, titled “Cuban Cinema and Culture,” will cost about $3,000 for tuition, transportation, housing, field trips and most meals.

In addition to exploring Havana, students will take a class in Cuban filmmaking at the International School of Film and Television in San Antonio de los Baos.

They will also take field trips to the Museum of the Revolution, the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, the Cuban Cinema Institute, a local beach, and dance and music performances.

Ramapo, which plans to make the trip an annual program, is also working on a deal to send some of its professors to teach courses at the International School of Film and Television.

Marta Bautis, a Ramapo assistant professor and filmmaker, came up with the idea for the program after showing her documentaries at a Latin American film festival in Havana.

Bautis, a native of Argentina, said she knew it would not be easy to set up the program because of the U.S. regulations. But she thought the results would be worth the work.

“It would be a really wonderful experience for the students to experience another culture,” Bautis said.

Ramapo officials said they are not worried about the politics surrounding their new study abroad program. Bautis believes students will make their own judgments.

“Why deprive the students of seeing the country with their own eyes and coming to their own conclusions?” she said.

  1. Follow up post #1 added on December 10, 2004 by Margie Pesante

    Kuddos. Sounds like a great program. I was wondering if you need any chaperones. I am fully bi-lingual and traveled to Cuba in 2003.  I would love to experience Cuba again with college students. Please reply. Gracias

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