UI discontinues 2018 study abroad trip to Cuba


Photo Courtesy of Molly Wagener

A part of international artist Jose Rodriguez Fuster’s Fuster Project, a community beautification project that focused on bringing the community together though the rebuilding of tiled murals. A student took this photo when she studied abroad in Cuba in 2016.

By Kevin Delgado, Staff writer

Shortly after John Vasquez stepped off his plane in Havana, Cuba, airport procedures commenced and local authorities questioned his identity and the reason for his visit.

Vasquez, a political science professor at the University, was leading a group of 24 students on a 12-day study abroad trip in Cuba, focusing on U.S.-Cuba relations.

The trip was one of the first allowed after the Obama administration eased the regulations of the Cuban embargo in 2014.

Now, regulations are changing under the influence of the Trump administration. On June 16, President Donald Trump signed a Cuban policy change that will restrict American travel to the island – more specifically, tourism.

“In recent years, travel to Cuba became easy. Now, under the Trump administration, we are going back to regulations set before Obama,” Vasquez said. “However, travel to Cuba for educational groups will not change. The University and institutions across the country will still be able to visit Cuba.”

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    Although U.S. citizens cannot visit the island for tourism purposes, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issued general licenses for 12 categories of travel.

    The categories include items such as family visits, professional research and meetings, educational activities and humanitarian projects.  

    This means that universities can continue study abroad programs if the program is not privately organized and travels as a group with an officially licensed operator.

    After conducting a site visit and observing Cuban approaches to medicine and engineering, Meredith Blumthal, director for International Programs in Engineering, organized a study abroad trip to Havana, Cuba.

    The trip was created for students in Engineering 198 and was set to take place during spring break 2018. However, the program never got off the ground because it did not generate enough student interest – only one of the minimum 10 required participants signed up for the trip.

    “I’ve had a lot of great experiences with students in the Caribbean,” Blumthal said. “It is a great opportunity to see the cultural transformation of a country kept so distant from us.”

    Though, the cancellation of the trip may have worked out best for University students.

    On Sept. 29, the Department of State issued a Cuba travel warning due to attacks on U.S. Embassy Havana employees. The aftermath of these attacks left individuals with a range of physical symptoms, including hearing loss, dizziness and fatigue, according to the U.S. Department of State.

    “If our students are expected to travel to a country that has issued a travel warning, International Safety and Security reviews the details of the travel warning, as well as the trip itinerary and local support and resources,” said Andrew Collum, associate director for international safety and security for Illinois International.

    Professor Emeritus Nils Jacobsen also accompanied students on study abroad trips to Cuba and described the island as a secure, police state.

    “I had hopes that after the return of the program in 2014, the University would offer it every year,” Jacobsen said.

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