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Conferencing in Cuba: A First Step Towards Increasing U.S.-Cuba Higher Education Partnerships

A bright pink Chevy the size of a whale, duos singing classic Buena Vista Social Club songs, Che t-shirts, and Fidel photos—all common associations that many of us in the U.S. have when we think of Cuba. Indeed, my colleague Daniel Obst and I witnessed them all in one form or another. It’s true there are old cars, and, yes, music is a huge part of the culture; but the beautiful reconstructed plazas, pervasive tranquility throughout the city, and friendly people were just a few of the wonderful surprises that greeted us last week when we had the unique opportunity to experience Cuba for the first time.

We were in Havana for the Congreso Universidad 2014 conference, a bi-annual event hosted by the Cuban Ministry of Higher Education (MES), which attracts several thousand higher education representatives—mainly from around Latin America and the Caribbean—to discuss pressing issues related to higher education. Our hope was to meet with Cuban higher education institutions and Ministry of Higher Education officials to learn about their current priorities and to gauge their interest in a potential IIE International Academic Partnership Program (IAPP) delegation of U.S. college and university representatives to Cuba. We received our OFAC license in the nick of time, and a U.S.-based travel agency well-versed in arranging travel to Cuba booked our flight down to Havana via Miami.

Held in a modern convention center near the Embassy-lined Avenida Quinta (5th Avenue), the conference was like many other international higher education gatherings. Topics included access to higher education, higher education quality, the role of higher education for local and regional development, and the internationalization of higher education. Exhibit booths representing universities, educational vendors, publishers, and organizations lined the halls, and participants were able to choose from hundreds of workshops, panel discussions, and round tables throughout the day. Campus France occupied a large booth in a prime location across from a Colombian vendor demonstrating a Smart Board. A publishing company held mini book talks, and every now and then the extra-large pavilion from Venezuela would erupt in cheers. So, besides the intermittent cheers, it really wasn’t so different from other higher education conferences. In fact, the goals outlined in many of the conference speeches and panel discussions made me realize that many Cuban higher education institutions share similar challenges and goals currently being discussed in the global arena. Cuban institutions and their counterparts around Latin America and the Caribbean are seeking comprehensive internationalization, want to foster a socially responsible university, and are working hard to make sure their students are developing knowledge and skills relevant for the workforce.

There are many areas of potential international collaboration, and in our face-to-face meetings with Cuban counterparts, Daniel and I found that the desire to develop partnerships with U.S. colleges and universities is also abundant. Ultimately, we met with international office directors and rectors from 10 Cuban universities, many of which have some sort of contact with U.S. institutions through short-term U.S. study abroad programs. However, they are ready for more collaboration through joint research, faculty exchange, or curriculum development.

The road ahead will not be without its challenges, and we’ll need to continue working with a variety of stakeholders in the run up to eventually launching the IAPP Cuba program. But it is clear that institutions on both sides are eager to collaborate on academic issues.