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Study in Cuba

Educational Travel Options are Unparalleled

Cuba offers a fascinating glimpse into the universe that predated al Qaida as a threat to Western values. The opportunity to see the remnants of a massive world movement should be enough to attract any education-minded traveler, but Cuba also offers outstanding educational travel options, not to mention a climate, people, and culture that are all unparalleled in their warmth.


A banana vendor in Trinidad

Cubans bicycle past a sign promoting a tourism of peace, health, and security.

Unfortunately, getting there at all is the problem. The U.S. maintains a 40-year-old travel ban on Cuba for its citizens, egged on today by old cold warriors and an influential Cuban-American lobby in Miami. President Bush recently announced he would veto any Congressional attempt to repeal the ban.

The good news is that for now it is easier than ever to obtain U.S. government permission to travel to Cuba. But act fast; the wind from the White House seems poised to start blowing in the opposite direction. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the department responsible for issuing licences, has outlined broad categories of “licensable” travel, including educational exchanges. The most straightforward way is to apply to the study-abroad program of a university that holds a “general licence,” allowing you to bypass the OFAC application and Cuban visa requirements altogether. This option, however, is only available to those currently enrolled at a U.S. university. For those not in school, several travel agencies are authorized to deal in travel to Cuba for pre-approved programs.

The problem with all of these options is that they are more expensive than independently traveling to the island, and they may include silly “suggestions” or living requirements that hamper the actual experience. Some Americans on a university program complained that they were forced to live together and could only travel in groups. Applying for an individual OFAC educational licence is reportedly much more difficult, and none of the Americans I met who had (or claimed to have) one could offer any reason why theirs had been approved and others had not.

Unlicensed Travel

The other option, of course, is to go without a licence. It is estimated that up to 50,000 Americans make this choice each year, traveling chiefly via Mexico, Canada, or the Bahamas. The advantages are clear: unfettered movement around Cuba and freedom to partake in whatever activities you choose. The disadvantages are even clearer: the risk of a fine that averages $8,000 if you get caught. More adventurous Americans point out that of the 50,000 unlicensed travelers, only about 450 were issued fines by OFAC last year. More cautious Americans counter that Bush et al are grumbling about tightening the ban and more aggressively enforcing it. The choice is personal, but you should be aware of the risks. For those considering this route, any Canadian travel agent is happy to arrange travel to Cuba for Americans, and the Cuban government runs its own agency catering to Americans.

Taking Courses

Cuba has more than enough distractions to keep you busy without taking a class. But the low cost of study and the wealth of things to learn there makes doing so almost de rigueur. The most popular option is the Univ. of Havana’s Spanish language courses, which, at the time of writing this article, are conveniently offered in 2-week blocs for those strapped for time as well as 1-month and longer courses. The classes are typically capped at 12 students and offered at all levels. For three hours per day, five days a week, they are cheap at about $200 for two weeks and a steal at about $250 for a month. Accommodations are available for $400 per month in air-conditioned dorms, but I don’t recommend them because they are located in suburban Miramar, rather far from the university and even farther from downtown Havana. The month courses include three guided excursions in and around Havana, usually to museums or a nearby town. If your Spanish is advanced, the university also offers fascinating short- and long-term Cuban culture courses covering cinema, politics, history, and art. Package tours frequently feature these same courses but at much higher prices.

The university, founded in 1728, is gorgeous. Classrooms surround a courtyard. The teachers provide windows into Cuban culture, eagerly discussing differences between their culture and those of their students, and discussions often lead to suggestions on what to see and where to find dance tutors or places to stay. Students should bear in mind, however, that teachers are employees of the state and baiting them into criticizing the Castro regime could cost them their jobs.

In general, Cubans you meet in the street are extroverted and willing to discuss most anything, including the political situation, so long as it is on the sly. In fact, while classes teach you a lot, it is the people you meet in the street that will give you the greatest enlightenment. Avoid political discussions in tourist districts. The undercover police are looking for “counter-revolutionaries.” It’s best to avoid mentioning Castro by name. The fierce pride in the achievements of the revolution is as inspiring as the frustration with personal restrictions is heart-wrenching.

Money, if you aren’t careful, won’t go much further in Cuba than in the U.S. or Europe. The state runs most businesses, and they usually insist that tourists pay in dollars to provide the government with hard currency. There are ways to spend in pesos (26 to one dollar), though, and doing so both saves you money and lets you participate more actively in Cuban society. Many of the antique American cars trundling through Havana are actually máquinas, or collective taxis, that travel along set routes and pick up passengers along the way, charging each 10 pesos. That means you can get across town for 50 cents. It is technically illegal for them to transport foreigners, so keep a low profile and don’t bother if you’re in a group bigger than two. Restaurants almost exclusively take only dollars, even when privately owned, although in many parts of Old Havana you will find stand-up cafeterias serving a set meal for 20 to 25 pesos. One of the best is La Primera de Aguacate, serving delicious pork meals nightly. Mandarin, a mediocre Chinese restaurant in Vedado, also charges in pesos. Movie theaters also charge in pesos (three pesos!), and Cuban cinema is world-renowned. UNEAC, the national artists’ union, offers near daily free programs to the public from its headquarters in Vedado.

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