As U.S. cracks open door to Cuba, Connecticut students head for the island

Washington — The average American is barred by the embargo from traveling to Cuba, but Connecticut students are packing their bags to visit the island.

After President Obama loosened travel restrictions last year to allow greater religious, cultural and academic travel to Cuba, a number of Connecticut colleges rushed to take advantage of the opening.

Yale University’s general counsel issued a notice advising students and faculty that if they planned to study, conduct research or attend a conference in Cuba, they could simply apply for a letter from the school that allows them to travel to the island nation.

Before Obama’s easing of sanctions, students and teachers were required to seek permission individually from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, the federal agency that polices the 50-year economic embargo on Cuba.

President Kennedy in 1962 tightened the partial trade embargo imposed by President Eisenhower after Fidel Castro nationalized American industries and properties.

Yale spokeswoman Karen Peart said that nearly 20 students and professors have traveled under the school’s “general license” since the Obama administration changed the rules last spring.

The University of Connecticut’s Office of International Affairs also alerted its students and faculty that a door to Cuba has swung open.

In a notice, the Office of International Affairs said “staff and students may travel to Cuba for educational purposes under what is called a ‘general license.’ Such travelers must carry a letter signed by Elizabeth Mahan, Associate Executive Director of the Office of Global Programs.”

Eastern Connecticut State University’s Department of Visual Arts has planned a 12-day trip beginning May 19 that is billed as “an inside look at the forbidden island of Cuba.”

Organized by visual arts professor Gail Gelburg, the trip promises to allow students to enjoy salsa music and dancing, travel the countryside, visit Ernest Hemingway’s former home and attend all the events of Havana’s Biennale, a massive arts festival. The cost: $2,900.

“If you want to see Cuba before it all changes, you have to go now,” Gelburg said.

She began taking students to Cuba after President Clinton eased regulations in 2000, but was forced to stop the trips when President Bush tightened the embargo again. That turnabout in 2004 derailed a trip Gelburg had already organized.

“I had a class planned, and I had a (travel) license when the license was revoked,” Gelburg said. “I made a quick shift and we all went to Miami to experience the Cuban culture there.”

She’s taking 14 students on her latest tour.

“It was going to be only nine, but it was hard to turn others away,” Gelburg said.

Obama’s easing of travel regulations increased the number of charter companies offering direct flights to Havana and other Cuban cities. Regularly scheduled commercial flights are still barred by the embargo, but airports in New York, Miami and Tampa, Fla., host the charter flights.

Obama’s move to promote “purposeful” travel to Cuba has also spawned about 30 travel agencies specializing in trips to Cuba.

Lately these travel agencies have been busy filling charter flights with Americans who want to witness Pope Benedict XVI ‘s visit to the Communist island next week.

But embargo supporters in Congress say the increased travel is providing the Cuban government with hard currency that helps keep Raul and Fidel Castro in power.

“This is not the time to ease pressure on the Castro regime,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, a Cuban-American Democrat from New Jersey.

The Obama administration argues that the good accomplished by contacts between Americans and Cubans outweighs any harm that might be caused by loosening the half-century embargo.

But all of the GOP presidential candidates, except Texas Rep. Ron Paul, have vowed to end the liberalization of travel to Cuba if they reach the Oval Office.

Mark McLaughlin, spokesman for Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, said one of his school’s strengths is its international studies department.

“Anytime we have an opportunity to learn about other parts of the world, that’s a good thing,” he said.

CCSU plans a May 18-27 trip to Cuba to visit “ecotourism sites, museums, large-scale resorts, religious sites, historical districts, and agricultural areas”

“The trip provides a rare opportunity for students to experience this country that has been off-limits to U.S. citizens for decades,” a sign-up sheet for the trip says.

Richard Benfield, a CCSU geography professor who organized the tour, which costs $2,995 per student, said travel to foreign lands “is very much a part of an education.”

He said the university organized its first trip to Cuba in 2002 but hasn’t had one in several years.

Yale spokeswoman Peart said Obama’s changes haven’t had much of an impact at her school.

“(It) does not seem to have created a significant increase to date in the study or research Yale faculty and students are doing in Cuba,” she said.

But an easing of travel rules would have probably helped the Yale Alumni Chorus, when it planned a Cuba trip in 2010 when the Bush-era restrictions were in place.

“‘It was a process, we had to get an attorney to help us get permission,” said Irma Garcia of the Yale Alumni Chorus Foundation.

Even when the chorus obtained permission to travel, there was an embargo-related snag.

“About two weeks before our trip, we had to announce to some of our members they couldn’t go,” Garcia said.

About 50 “non singers” were bounced from the trip because the Treasury Department’s office decided they were not eligible under the old regulations.

But about 100 chorus members were able to sing in Cuba.