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College students get rare look at Cuba

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  • Walter Lippmann
    SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS Posted on Fri, Mar. 31, 2006 College students get rare look at Cuba ANITA SNOW Associated Press HAVANA - Molly Morris didn t realize how
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 1, 2006
      SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS
      Posted on Fri, Mar. 31, 2006

      College students get rare look at Cuba

      ANITA SNOW
      Associated Press

      HAVANA - Molly Morris didn't realize how isolated Cubans are from the
      United States until a worker at her hotel asked for a U.S. map to see
      where she and other visiting American college students came from.

      "It just about broke my heart," said the 19-year-old from Houston,
      who didn't have a U.S. map and didn't know where to find one on this
      Caribbean island.

      Cubans' isolation from the United States has sharpened over the past
      two years as the U.S. government has increasingly choked off travel
      to the communist-run nation.

      As the Bush administration tightens the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba,
      students, academics, religious groups and even Cuban-Americans with
      family on the Caribbean island are finding their travel here
      increasingly restricted.

      "They're trying to find more ways to get tough with Cuba," said
      Philip Brenner, a Cuba expert and associate dean at American
      University in Washington D.C.

      "This is a foretaste of more restrictions that will prevent Cubans
      and Americans from dealing with each other at all," added Brenner,
      who helped arrange the four-month visit to Cuba by nine students from
      the university.

      The students said they were at times puzzled by the contradictions
      between Cuban government rhetoric about the benefits of a socialist
      society and Cubans' lack of material wealth.

      "I've traveled a lot and for me it has been very frustrating," said
      21-year-old Jessica Skinner, of Grand Junction, Colo. "I came here
      being very anti-embargo and now that I'm here, I'm confused."

      Such exposure to the complex Cuban reality is increasingly rare.

      In June 2004, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed restrictions
      requiring that academic trips to Cuba be at least 10 weeks long,
      eliminating popular one- and two-week visits that universities once
      offered on everything from salsa dancing and bird watching to
      colonial architecture.

      Treasury officials had complained the shorter visits were often
      tourism disguised as academic tours and were enriching the government
      of President Fidel Castro, who has been in power for 47 of his 79
      years.

      U.S. licenses for academic travel to Cuba have fallen from 181 in
      2003, before the new restrictions took effect, to 69 last year,
      Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said.

      Among the trips halted was an annual cruise-ship visit to Cuba by the
      University of Pittsburgh's Semester at Sea, which brought hundreds of
      students for trips of a few days that often included a face-to-face
      meeting with Castro himself.

      At the same time, authorized visits by relatives of people living on
      the island were sliced from once annually to once every three years -
      a move criticized by some Cuban-Americans.

      A Cuban report released last fall said 57,145 Cuban-Americans visited
      Cuba in 2004, compared with 115,050 in 2003 - a 50 percent drop.

      For other Americans, the number of visits fell from 85,809 in 2003 to
      51,027 in 2004, the report said. The numbers continued to decrease in
      2005, it said. Cuba has not yet released figures for 2005.

      Castro and other Cuban officials have criticized the travel
      crackdown, saying the Bush administration is violating the
      constitutional rights of American citizens.

      The United States has also tightened travel by Cuban academics to the
      United States. In March, it denied visas to about 55 Cuban academics
      who had hoped to attend the Latin American Studies Association
      congress in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 2004, U.S. visas were also
      denied for more than 60 Cuban scholars who wanted to attend the
      congress held that year in Las Vegas.

      The Bush administration has also tightened restrictions on American
      religious groups wanting to visit Cuba.

      But for now, the American University students are getting a glimpse
      of a country unfamiliar to most Americans who don't have the means or
      the time to make an academic visit lasting at least 10 weeks.

      The students, who arrived in January, are studying Cuban history,
      culture, international relations and Spanish at the University of
      Havana.

      "Ten weeks gives you a much better look at the country," said
      20-year-old Jake Patoski of Austin, Texas. "But it rules out a lot of
      Americans who now cannot come here."
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