By Natalie Ortiz
After over 50 years of hostility, the United States has begun to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, creating new opportunities for students and scholars interested in learning more about the island country.
Americans can now travel to Cuba on so-called people-to-people trips. President Barack Obama, who visited the island in March, is the first sitting U.S. president to do so since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. He gave an optimistic press conference upon his arrival.
“It’s a historic opportunity to engage directly with the Cuban people and to forge new agreements and commercial deals to build new ties between our two peoples, and for me, the layout of our vision for a future that is brighter than our past,” Obama said.
Because of long-term limitations of foreign relations and trade policies, Cuba remains largely technology-free. Visitors say it has a 1950s atmosphere. The plans now shared by Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro could open many doors not just for trade, but also for academic pursuits.
To prepare for such opportunities, Texas Tech Vice Provost for International Affairs Tibor Nagy and Texas Tech political science professor Dennis Patterson are working with the University of Havana.
“It is obvious that when relations further improve, the U.S. government will be expanding considerable funds to promote a variety of links with Cuba, and I know part of that will be educational links,” Nagy said. “We just need to be ready with study abroad, research exchanges, partnerships, maybe joint degree programs.”
Although Nagy said he would like to have Texas Tech students study in Cuba next summer, Elizabeth McDaniel, senior director for International Education and Enrollment Management at the Office of International Affairs, said it may be a while before this happens.
“We’re in the very early stages of development,” McDaniel said. “There are a lot of challenges of being in Cuba, and there are still a lot of bureaucratic hurdles that you have to go through. Housing is a challenge, and transportation is a challenge.”
Nagy said what is likely holding Congress from completely lifting the embargo is the 2016 presidential election, as well as opinions expressed by some in the Cuban-American community.
“The majority of the Cuban-American community is in favor of broadening ties,” Nagy said. “There’s still a very very vocal significant minority that is dead set against it.”
Luis Grave de Peralta, an associate professor of physics at Tech, and his wife of 34 years Mara were both born and raised in Cuba. In 1992, de Peralta was put in prison by the political police for a book he wrote criticizing Fidel Castro and his regime as fraudulent.
The novel “Cuba, Castro and The King Solomon” contains excerpts from Castro’s speeches and highlights many of their internal contradictions.
After serving four out of 13 years in prison, de Peralta was granted amnesty, along with three others, to move to the U.S. with the help of Amnesty International. He had to leave his wife and children behind for four years before they were reunited.
De Peralta and his wife have seen the U.S. attempt to reopen ties with Cuba, only to fail. Neither of them has much hope for stronger relations between the two countries.
“I don’t see any change, and I don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon,” Mara de Peralta said. “I think it’s gonna be the same thing for a long period of time ahead. It’s the same thing over and over again. The Castros are in power, and as long as they are going to be in power, it’s going to be the same thing. You cannot trust the Cuban government.”
Venezuela was the primary supporter of Cuba, but with the recent collapse of the Venezuelan economy, the Cuban government is in need of more help. This is why Luis de Peralta thinks Cuba is reaching for help from the United States.
“Venezuela gave a lot of free oil to Cuba,” Luis de Peralta said. “Cuba got this oil and resold it. Now Venezuela has to stop giving this oil to Cuba. Cuba may return to the place when the Soviet Union collapsed. It’s a really bad moment for Cuba.”
Cuban President Raúl Castro sought to reform the country’s economy for six years before reaching out to the U.S., Peter Hakim, president emeritus and senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, said in an email.
“I think Raúl Castro understood that Cuba was facing an almost impossible economic future, as Venezuela’s support was threatened by the collapse of the price of oil and Venezuela’s internal turmoil,” Hakim wrote. “The U.S. was the only potential source of capital needed by Cuba—with the prospect of increased remittances and tourism, new flows of investment, and renewed imports from Cuba.”
With the presidential elections coming up, Hakim believes potential democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would continue to improve Cuban relations if elected. As for Trump, it is hard to tell.
“If elected, Hillary Clinton will, without question, largely pursue the policy toward Cuba initiated by Obama,” Hakim wrote. “Any prediction at all will be hard if Trump wins. But he has stated that he is fine with Obama’s policy changes, stating 50 years is enough. My sense is that Trump probably could care less about Cuba, but the Cubans will certainly be wary of him.”
Luis De Peralta remains pessimistic, regardless of who is elected.
“Looks like the next president will do nothing,” Luis de Peralta said. “Hillary will continue the Obama policy, and Trump doesn’t care.”
Nagy is positive about the changes coming to Cuba under the next president, whoever it may be.
“Clinton surely will follow up on Obama’s agenda,” Nagy said. “Trump is a business guy. He’s not into political idealism. He’s gonna say, ‘Here’s a potential market, the Cuban people want American products, you open it up, and the old regime will be washed away.’ Trump’s analysis is going to be very practical.”