The new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is currently engaged in a review of US policies toward Cuba, including permitting the continued travel of U.S. citizens to that country. Having promoted educational travel around the world since the 1950s, our organization has witnessed the unmistakable power of person-to-person international exchanges. Our facilitation of over 300 groups to Cuba (totaling nearly 7,000 U.S. citizens) in recent years strengthens our conviction that the U.S. must allow these kinds of exchanges to continue in the interests of both the American and Cuban people.
Authorized educational travel to Cuba comes, at present, in two categories. The first comprises academic programs offered by U.S. colleges and universities. These offer American students a lens through which to witness a country in political and economic transition. With the last remaining original Cuban revolutionaries giving way to a new political leadership, and a Marxist economy evolving to a hybrid of state and private commercial activity, the Cuba of tomorrow will pose different challenges and opportunities for our country. Giving the next generation of American leaders an opportunity to learn about that Cuba firsthand ensures better policies toward that island nation in years to come.
The second category of authorized educational travel to Cuba is what we commonly refer to as “people-to-people” programs. Under current rules, these programs must provide a full-time educational schedule with “meaningful interaction” between U.S. participants and ordinary Cubans. Such interactions typically take the form of inter-cultural discussions about an array of topics ranging from the challenges of newly authorized self-employment to local environmental conservation projects.
People-to-people programs are not tourist trips. In fact, tourist trips to Cuba continue to be prohibited by an act of Congress that dates back to the Clinton administration. There have been recent abuses of the people-to-people category, as a few minutes on the internet can confirm. While our organization is committed to freedom of travel, we recognize that President Trump is bound by this act of Congress to prohibit tourist travel to Cuba. But cracking down on illegal travel does not require eliminating these important exchanges and interactions altogether. The President can tighten the reins on tourist travel while allowing genuine educational people-to-people travel to continue.
The educational programs to Cuba we have facilitated have also served members of U.S. professional research groups, cultural institutions, and mission-driven organizations. Time and time again, these trips have shown themselves to advance the interests of U.S. travelers and Cubans alike. They reduce isolation and allow Cubans to interact with Americans in informative ways. They provide income for Cuba’s small and expanding private sector. Most importantly though, they give our participants a firsthand understanding of Cuba and its people, putting into relief a tenet we urge President Trump to consider and support – people-to-people engagement, not isolation, is the best policy to adopt in promoting productive international relations.