Coffee and Complicated History: The Realities of U.S.-Cuba Academic Partnerships

Over coffee in Havana, a young Cuban professional asked me, “What are your intentions in Cuba? Why are U.S. universities interested in creating partnerships with Cuban universities?” While these questions initially caught me off guard, they helped me reflect on the current realities of U.S.-Cuba partnerships and what the near future might hold for these relationships.

This conversation with the young Cuban professional was one of many I had while in Havana for the Universidad 2016 Cuban Higher Education Conference in February. IIE partnered with the Association of American State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) to host a high-level U.S. delegation to the conference where we represented the U.S. higher education system and connected with universities from across Cuba. This was the first time a U.S. higher education delegation ever had such a major presence at this conference, which attracts higher education professionals from across Cuba, Latin America and the Caribbean, and around the world. While initially startling, the question about why U.S. universities want to create partnerships with Cuban universities is poignant in its reflection of the challenges, opportunities, and stark realities that can both help and hinder U.S.–Cuban academic partnerships.

One reality is that many U.S. institutions already have partnerships with universities in Cuba, and have had them for quite some time now. For example, the University of Delaware conducts faculty-led trips to Cuba to teach students about Cuban art and culture. Other institutions have signed Memorandums of Understanding with Cuban universities directly, as is the case between Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Havana. Another option is for faculty or administrators to collaborate with cultural institutions such as Casa de Las Americas or Fundación Ludwig de Cuba, as the College of William and Mary has done for over two decades. However, even with all these and other examples of successful Cuba-U.S. academic partnerships, there are still many challenges that continue to exist on both sides.

It’s necessary to understand the limitations, at the present moment, when it comes to creating partnerships and developing programs with Cuban institutions. For one, relations have not been fully normalized between the U.S. and Cuba. The embargo still exists, which greatly restricts Cuba’s ability to participate in international financial markets. There are still restrictions that limit free travel for Americans to Cuba, even though the State Department recently relaxed restrictions for individual travelers. In addition, the U.S. policy known commonly as “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” also complicates matters by offering any Cuban that enters U.S. soil the opportunity to become a legal resident. These are all complications that are important to keep in mind when thinking about partnership building in Cuba.

When U.S. institutions look towards Cuba to create partnerships, they need to be aware of the history between our two countries and think critically about how they approach Cuban institutions. Above all, strategic partnerships must be mutually beneficial in nature. Only partnerships that serve the needs of both institutions equally have a chance of surviving in the long-term. U.S. institutions looking to create partnerships need to develop real relationships with faculty and administrators in Cuba to create trust between both parties. It’s important to keep it slow when it comes to partnership building. There is mistrust from both sides, so the need to establish a meaningful relationship from the get-go is crucial.

President Obama’s recent visit to Cuba marked an historic change in U.S.-Cuba relations; one that will hopefully lead to continued cooperation between our two countries going forward. However, there’s a long, complicated history that surrounds the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba and complete normalization is not going to happen overnight. The relationship with Cuban higher education institutions needs to be cultivated over time, with care. It’s impossible to create meaningful, lasting partnerships without having a basic understanding of the historical and political context that surrounds our relationship. As we continue to break down barriers between our two countries, I hope we take the time to listen to each other and look to understand the other side. This is an exciting new chapter for both of our countries and I’m glad to have had the chance to experience a little part of it.