The Associated Press
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) - The University of North Carolina has teamed up with the University of Havana to allow students to study abroad in Cuba.
UNC-Chapel Hill will send eight students there next month to study Cuban history, culture and international relations, along with Spanish grammar and language.
The university has sent students to Cuba before, but traveled under another university’s government license, a requirement of the U.S. government.
UNC’s license was several years old and was awarded before new federal restrictions were in place. The Department of the Treasury recently renewed UNC’s license, allowing Carolina to send students and faculty to Cuba.
“I think this might be the only country in the Western Hemisphere that Americans are denied the right to travel to,” said Louis Perez, a UNC history professor who specializes in Cuba. “I think what the program allows us to do, among many other things, is to place our students in a country that is intrinsically fascinating in terms of its history and culture.”
University officials say the program will be useful because Cuba is in something of a transition period due to the age of the communist nation’s leader, 77-year-old Fidel Castro.
“Cuba is right next door to us,” said Evelyne Huber, director of UNC’s Institute of Latin American Studies. “Whether there is going to be a peaceful transition or a violent transition there is of great importance to us.”
For students, the primary benefit will be exposure to a new culture rather than a glimpse at a changing political structure, Perez said.
“I doubt that American students would ever be aware of ‘transition,’” he said. “That’s something that academics speak of, that scholars speak of, who have a long view. Unless a student is really very astute in Cuban past and present, they’ll take Cuba as they find it.”
U.S. travel to Cuba has been limited for decades, as the federal government has tried to limit the spending and other resources headed to the communist nation.
It is that limitation, Perez said, that will surely make the program popular.
“I think Cuba, in many ways, might be very familiar to Americans.” he said. “Certainly, Cubans will seem very familiar. These are people very aware with American culture and American history. But what happens is that the moment a country becomes off limits is the moment people want to travel there.”
The restrictions are, in fact, more about spending money rather than travel, Perez said.
“One can travel to Cuba, but one cannot spend money in Cuba,” he said. “If you travel to Cuba and buy a beer in a hotel bar, you’re trading with the enemy.”
Exceptions are commonly made for people with good reason to be there, like scholars, journalists, diplomats and students, he said.
UNC officials hope the program will increase communication and scholarship between both universities, perhaps exploring issues common to both Cuba and North Carolina, such as finding markets for the state’s farm products in the island nation.
The export of U.S. products to Cuba has only been legal for a few years. Since 2001, North Carolina agriculture officials have visited Cuba three times to encourage trade.