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White House eases study abroad restrictions to Cuba

President Obama has issued an executive order easing restrictions on student and religious organizations traveling to Cuba.

The order, made last Friday, will allow accredited universities to receive general licenses for exchange programs. The order will also allow short term trips, such as academic seminars, conferences and workshops. Under the Bush administration, educational exchanges were required to be 10 weeks long and each university had to apply for its own license for its own students.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio released a statement opposing the changes.

“I was opposed to the changes that have already been made by this administration and I oppose these new changes,” Rubio said in the statement. “It is unthinkable that the administration would enable the enrichment of a Cuban regime that routinely violates the basic human rights and dignity of its people.”

Critics of the changes, like Rubio, claim the new regulations are open to abuse, and will allow the Communist government to cement its control by using students and researchers as a new source of money.

“The money will go to the Cuban government,” Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba said. “Cuba is like a company town.”

Calzon said all money that goes to Cuba ends up in the government’s coffers to keep it in power. But, he said, the Cuban government is on the verge of an economic collapse and any money sent to Cuba may strengthen the resolve of the weakening Communist government.

Jose Cardenas, who worked on the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba under the Bush Administration, said the Cuban government claimed it will lay off 500,000 state workers into the “micro-enterprise” sector, due to shortfalls. New revenue streams may bring the “micro-enterprise” sector to a halt.

“If you give them any oxygen, any relief from pressure, they will not continue reform,” Cardenas said.

Former ambassador to the Organization of American States Roger Noriega said the Bush Administration placed the 2004 regulations to prevent educational junkets, which were vacations in disguise. He said students would typically attend seminars in Cuba as an excuse to party in Havana.

In an article for the American Enterprise Institute, Noriega described the use of licenses for events like golf outings and pub crawls, before the Bush administration increased restrictions in 2004.

Cardenas, along with Noriega, helped to make those restrictions. He said part of the commission’s duty was to observe the mechanisms the Castro regime used to raise money. They determined the Cuban government focuses most of its efforts on the tourism industry. The commission also reported many institutions abused licenses in the form of disguised tourism.

“People basically were trying to slap on a political reason for vacation,” Cardenas said.

Mark Scheid, President and CEO of the Institute for Study Abroad at Butler University, placed about 130 exchange students in Cuba in 2003, the last year before the Bush restrictions. Scheid said The University of Havana treats his exchange students like any regular students, so the American students must be fully fluent in Spanish. He thinks the concern over Obama’s executive order is misplaced.

“I don’t think you’re going to find that putting college kids on campus in Havana is going to make a significant impact on the island’s economy,” Scheid said.

He said study abroad is one of the best methods of learning and that the exchange program will be important to have for Cuban to American interaction.

Scheid said the Treasury still needs to discover how the new rules will affect institutions applying for a license. The new rules state that only accredited universities may apply for general license and to be accredited you must be able to give degrees. He said the new rules affect 501 C3 non-profits, such as his, which operate under the Bush administration’s rules. He’s believes they’ll continue to be licensed, even though it could take the Treasury months to figure the new rules out.

“I think the benefits for both countries far outweigh the negative, if there are any, of putting college students together.”

Michael Mayday is a staff writer for the Hillsdale Collegian. He is a member of the Student Free Press Association.

Updated (2:33 pm.): Originally the article said that 130 students were placed in Cuba through the Butler program in 2010 — this is actually the number of students placed in 2003, before the Bush White House restrictions.

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