WASHINGTON – Experts, former officials and some university chancellors appealed on Tuesday to U.S. President Barack Obama to end restrictions “immediately” on academic, cultural, sports and scientific exchanges with Cuba.
At a conference in Washington organized by the Center for International Policy, members of the Emergency Coalition to Defend Educational Travel said the restrictions are a legacy of the Bush administration and should not be continued by Obama.
The former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Wayne Smith, questioned the fact that Obama still has not taken the “easiest step” in his policy of rapprochement with Havana and has only lifted restrictions on Cuban-Americans’ travel and remittances to the island.
Smith, the director of the CIP’s Cuba Program, said that little can be expected of Obama’s promised new Cuba policy if the president “is not even capable” of raising travel restrictions for academics.
Obama’s reticence to taken further steps in an opening to Cuba is one of the reasons that Latin America doubts the “seriousness” of his intentions toward Havana and the region in general, the former U.S. diplomat said.
In fact, the decision taken by Latin American presidents at the recent Rio Group summit to create a Community of Latin American and Caribbean States without the presence of the United States or Canada is a reflection of the region’s “profound disappointment” with the new Obama government, Smith said.
He also dismissed the argument that the death of Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died last month after 85 days on a hunger strike, is evidence that the island has not changed and that’s why it is not the time to eliminate more restrictions.
The United States, Smith said, is not “in the best position” to speak of hunger strikes, given the U.S. military’s practice of force-feeding hunger strikers at the detention camp for terror suspects in Guantanamo, Cuba.
He stressed that while Zapata’s death should be condemned, “it’s not a reason” to maintain restrictions on travel to Cuba.
In 2003, President George W. Bush suspended the provisions approved in 1999 by predecessor Bill Clinton to “help the Cuban people” by means of programs structured for educational and cultural exchanges.
A year later, the Bush administration imposed such severe limits on U.S. university programs in Cuba that it was practically impossible to continue them, ECDET says.
ECDET’s Robert Muse says that up to 2004 some 200 universities offered courses in Cuba and some 2,000 students attended them each year. Today only 10 universities take part in those programs with some 63 students.
William LeoGrande, dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, said that the restrictions contradict other U.S. policies, given that U.S. citizens can travel to such countries as Iran, North Korea and Sudan, but not to Cuba. EFE