October 11, 2011
Study-Abroad Providers Remain in Limbo Over Cuba Programs
By Karin Fischer
Nine months after President Obama announced he was lifting an embargo on academic travel to Cuba, independent study-abroad providers are still waiting for permission to organize academic programs in the Caribbean country.
Sixty licenses have been issued to groups running travel and humanitarian programs to Cuba since rules regulating American trips there were published in April, according to the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, which enforces and administers international economic and trade sanctions.
But study-abroad groups say they know of no provider organization that has received a permit to take students to Cuba. And they say the explanations they have been given for the delay by the Treasury Department and the State Department, which must also sign off on licenses, are confusing and, at times, contradictory.
"We are clearly receiving mixed messages regarding provider organizations," says Brian J. Whalen, president of the Forum on Education Abroad, a membership association of American and overseas colleges and independent education-abroad providers. He says he knows of at least a half-dozen study-abroad groups waiting for licenses. "The impact is that fewer students will have the opportunity to study abroad in Cuba, which does not advance the policy goal of opening up and encouraging academic and cultural programming in Cuba."
Colleges that operate their own Cuba programs have been able to move forward because, under the new regulations, accredited institutions can travel to Cuba under a "general" license, which does not require permission or prior governmental approval for travel. (Instead, students and faculty members must carry letters on official university letterhead authorizing travel, and the college must keep records of all trips for five years.)
In fact, the new rules have made it easier for American college-run programs in Cuba, which, prior to the sanctions imposed in 2004 by President Bush, faced more extensive licensing requirements. The regulations were issued without a comment period in April.
Outside study-abroad groups, however, must apply for specific, "people-to-people" licenses. Because many colleges cannot afford to run their own programs, many Americans who study abroad do so with outside academic providers.
Jerry Guidera, U.S. director for the Center for Cross-Cultural Study, which runs Spanish-language programs around the world, submitted his organization's application immediately after Mr. Obama's announcement in January, even before the travel rules were published. In August, he says, he was told to expect approval "in a matter of days."
"Nothing came of it," Mr. Guidera says.
The Institute for Study Abroad, Butler University sent more than 250 students to Cuba prior to the embargo and had begun making plans to restart its program with its local partner, the University of Havana. (The nonprofit group is separate from Butler.) But two weeks ago, Mark Scheid, IFSA-Butler's president and chief executive, says he was told by Treasury officials that the group might not qualify for a people-to-people license.
Contacted by The Chronicle about the study-abroad providers' problem, an OFAC spokeswoman said there is "no licensing category that speaks to what they do." Of the two educational licensing classes, one applies to educational travel for seminars, conferences, and workshops. The other permits travel for "educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program." Study-abroad programming, of course, is for academic credit.
The OFAC spokeswoman declined to comment on the status of the educational groups' license applications and referred questions regarding foreign-policy decisions, including the licensing categories, to the State Department. A State Department spokesman referred questions back to OFAC, saying the department does not issue licenses, so it cannot comment on specific licenses or requests.
For their part, the study-abroad groups say they were initially told by Treasury officials that they would qualify for people-to-people licenses and are bewildered by the holdup.
Mr. Guidera says at least one college that had planned to send students to Cuba through the Center for Cross-Cultural Study has instead turned to a nonacademic group that has already been given a license to take students to Cuba this January. Meanwhile, Mr. Scheid says, IFSA-Butler is considering the possibility of running a customized program with an American university, using that institution's general license.
The provider groups say they plan to continue to press for licenses to be awarded. "We're trying to be the squeaky wheel," says Luke Jones, chief of staff for Semester at Sea.