This semester the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill began a semester abroad program in Cuba. The university teamed with the University of Havana.
The study abroad was made possible when the U.S. Department of the Treasury renewed UNC-CH’s site license governing travel to Cuba. UNC-CH’s previous license preceded federal restrictions put in place after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Eight UNC-CH undergraduate students and a graduate student will participate. The undergraduates will attend courses in Cuban history, culture and international relations, and Spanish language, and grammar. They will be taught in English by Havana faculty.
The program also seeks to have UNC-CH professors meet with the Cuban leaders. The meetings would focus on furthering relations between North Carolina and Cuba, to include agriculture and other kinds of trade between the state and the dictatorship.
Only a handful of American universities have partnerships in Havana. Robert Miles, UNC-CH’s study abroad executive director, negotiated UNC-CH’s agreement with Havana, which includes, according to the Arts & Sciences online Showcase of the program, contributing “something academic to the University of Havana in return.” The Cuba program is “a program of activities that includes the study abroad program alongside a number of other academic collaborations.”
The program receives, upon the approval of Richard Soloway, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, private funding from the Arts and Sciences Foundation.
Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959 by overthrowing the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Under Castro, Cuba became a one-party state dominated by the Cuban Communist Party, but Castro himself oversees every political appointment and outlets of political power in the country.
“Under Castro, the cycles of repression have ebbed and flowed depending on the regime’s need to keep at bay the social forces set into motion by his severe post-Cold War economic reforms,” reports Freedom House. “There are some 320 prisoners of conscience in Cuba, most held in cells with common criminals and many convicted on vague charges such as ‘disseminating enemy propaganda’ or ‘dangerousness.’”
Cuba receives the lowest scores that Freedom House gives for political rights and civil liberties.
“In Cuba it is a crime to criticize Fidel Castro and his functionaries, criticize communism, associate conscientiously, establish independent media, or leave Cuba without permission,” said Myles Kantor, a columnist for FrontPage Magazine and editor-at-large for Pureplay Press, which publishes books about Cuban history and culture. Kantor said the Castro regime’s totalitarian orthodoxy brings to mind Frederick Douglass’ observation that “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants.”
UNC-CH officials, however, point to Cuba as a nation “on the brink of transition” because Castro is 77 years old and in failing health. “Cuba is right next door to us,” said Evelyne Huber, who is a Morehead Alumni professor of political science and also director of the Institute of Latin American Studies. “Whether there is going to be a peaceful transition or a violent transition there [after Castro’s death] is of great importance to us.”
“Understanding the people with whom you want to have expanded economic ties and cultural ties is very important,” said Louis Perez, citing UNC-CH’s “very strong” library collection of Cuban newspapers, magazines, and books. The Carlyle Sitterson professor of history also said, “We want to be in a position to have already established collaborative relationships on many different fronts, so that when relations improve [between the Cuban and U.S. governments], our students, the academic community, and the larger public of North Carolina will have a sort of head start.”
Kantor said the program implies legitimizing the present Cuban regime. “Given this systematic violence perpetrated against Cubans — specific atrocities including the mass imprisonment of human rights activists last year and the expulsion of university students who signed the Varela Project — the legitimizing implications of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Cuba program are problematic, to say the least,” he said. “Instead of solidarity for Cuba’s independent intellectuals, UNC pursues collaborations [to use Miles’s word] with the regime that persecutes these heroes and crushes the academic freedom UNC would no doubt profess to cherish.”
Jon Sanders is assistant editor of Carolina Journal.