When University of Iowa senior Kayla Cemensky was weighing her options for study abroad destinations, she found herself intrigued by Cuba. Intrigued, and a little nervous.
“It’s kind of this forbidden place,” Cemensky, 22, said. “People don’t talk about it much. You can’t travel there much. So to have the opportunity to study there was really interesting to me.”
Cemensky signed up by affirming on an affidavit that she would be visiting for educational purposes, one of just a handful of reasons Americans have been allowed to travel to the Caribbean island nation in recent years. And she, along with seven other UI students, are scheduled to leave Dec. 26 for a three-week program in Havana.
Cemensky is taking a course on art and literature during her stay, but after President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced that the United States is restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years, Cemensky said she expects to learn about more than just culture.
She’s anticipating a front-row seat to history.
“It’s pretty cool that it’s happening right now,” Cemensky said. “It will be cool to be a part of it and see how the people down there react to it all.”
Wednesday’s announcement represents a significant policy shift and ends decades of hostility with the communist country that Obama said “has failed to advance our interests.” It was preceded by Cuba’s release of imprisoned American Alan Gross, 65, and another intelligence agent.
“We will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Obama said. “Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people.”
Obama said the change will relax some aspects of commerce between the United States and Cuba and ease travel restrictions — although it’s not expected to lead to broad tourism on the island immediately. Going forward, Obama said, Americans will be able to use credit and debit cards in Cuba and send more money to the country.
“We’re significantly increasing the amount of money that can be sent to Cuba, and removing limits on remittances that support humanitarian projects, the Cuban people, and the emerging Cuban private sector,” Obama said.
The United States plans to reopen its Cuban embassy and advance its shared interests — things like health, migration, counterterrorism, drug trafficking, and disaster response, Obama said. The United States will continue to raise its disapproval on things like human rights in Cuba, according to Obama.
Ron McMullen, a UI visiting association professor in political science and former U.S. ambassador to the State of Eritrea, said on Wednesday that the policy shift made sense — now that the American prisoners were released.
“President Obama has two years left, and he doesn’t want to be seen as a lame duck,” McMullen said. “This was something he could do without congressional approval … and it really made no sense not to.”
The policy change means the United States now has severed diplomatic relations with just three countries — North Korea, Iran, and Bhutan, McMullen said.
“Even though we disagree with the human rights abuses and lack of democracy in Cuba, we have relations with many countries with whom we disagree,” he said. “This is a step forward in re-establishing normal relations.”
The United States’ diplomatic relations broke down in 1961 after Fidel Castro came to power, and it has maintained a trade embargo with Cuba since that time. This week’s policy shift will not end the embargo, McMullen said. That needs congressional approval.
But, he said, it could mean more Havana vacations for Americans and more protections for U.S. citizens once they arrive. That comes as welcome news to UI junior Brian Paul — or, more accurately, to his parents.
“I’ve traveled quite a bit and know how to handle it, but my dad was asking, ‘What if you get stuck? There is no diplomatic relationship,” said Paul, 20, who also is headed to Cuba next week through the UI’s study abroad program.
From the historical perspective, Paul views Wednesday’s announcement as “exciting.”
“It will be great — I want to see people’s reactions,” he said. “It will be a very interesting things to witness and see what they think of me.”
Both Paul and Cemensky said that, despite this week’s policy shift, they are prepared to spend only cash in Cuba and convert their American dollars to another currency to save on the steep conversion rate.
“But I’m sure everything is about to change,” Paul said, adding that he expects this is just the beginning. “I’m looking forward to being able to go back in the future.”