Carol Hills: So how exactly did these students wind up in Florida? I asked Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College in New York City and the author of "Cuba: A Global Studies Handbook".
Ted Henken: Well, there's an organization in Miami called the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba and they have been doing some innovative work over the last few years. They set up something to try to get cellphones into the hands of some Cuban who don't have them, trying to connect Cuba to the world via internet. But they've also tried now and succeeded to reach out to students on the island, especially students who have been kicked out of Cuban Universities for ideological reasons, and invited them, now that there is free-er travel between Cuba and the United States, invited them to study in partnership with Miami Dade College in the city of Miami which is actually the largest public university system in the nation.
Hills: So how do these students get from being say chosen to go to Miami Dade? Don't they have to get the permission of Cuban authorities?
Henken: Well, actually they don't. We're kind of the blind leading the blind here because the law changed a year ago, the Cuban law which for fifty years had required Cubans to get permission from the government to travel abroad, that law was reformed. And although there's not complete freedom and there's not complete right to travel back and forth if you're Cuban, there's much greater freedom than has ever existed under the revolution, and so now Cubans can leave the country for up to twenty-four months months without asking permission from the Cuban government. They don't have to get an exit visa, nor do they have to show a letter of invitation, so they can go abroad for tourism if they have the money, which is very rare actually. They can go abroad to study. They can go abroad for a variety of reasons, visit family, and in this case, because of this new reality, Miami Dade College, in conjunction with the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, took advantage of this. The question to me, for me, is really will these students go back? And, a bigger question, will Cuban universities, the Cuban university system, recognize any of the credits that they earn in the United States? That's the big question.
Hills: So you mentioned some of these students are people who were already kicked out of Cuban universities because of their politics. How were these students chosen, the ones who are at Miami Dade?
Henken: That's a great question. I think that we don't want to repeat some of the practices ideologically that the Cuban government has engaged in. They have an old saying in Cuba that the university is for revolutionaries and therefore ideological requirements were often part of the package. In the case of these students I know maybe about half of them personally. I've worked with some of them over the years. Some of them are bloggers, there's two guys who are hip-hop artists, there's two young Afro-Cuban lawyers. But I'm unclear on exactly how these people were chosen and what I think needs to be avoided for this thing to move forward and grow, which I think is a wonderful idea, is that we don't pick just dissidents who come to these programs, but that it be open to all Cubans regardless of their ideological backgrounds or their connections. I know some of them are daughters and sons or relatives of some of the most prominent dissidents and so in some ways they may have been chosen because they have directly experienced ideological discrimination and this was an opportunity for them to study.
Hills: Is there a risk for the Cuban government that these students will come back and have experience overseas and in the US? Is that a kind of domestic PR risk for the Cuban government?
Henken: It is. It's the boomerang effect I sometimes call it where people get out or information gets out of Cuba and then it comes back and Cuba doesn't elect to have control over the media and over what people see and hear and over public spaces and so this is a risk, but I think the government decided over a year ago to make this calculated risk because it could benefit from the economic boost that people are traveling abroad, earning money, sending it back to family members. It could also benefit from the escape valve. Some of the dissidents, maybe they'll go abroad, maybe they'll stay abroad, maybe they'll find a better life abroad and not come back and cause trouble. And so I think that calculated risk, so far it's unsure whether the opposition, the dissident community and the Cuban citizens, benefit more than the Cuban government, but I think more freedoms are always better and more engagement is always better.
Hills: Ted Henken is the author of "Cuba: A Global Studies Handbook". He also teaches at Baruch College in New York City. Thanks a lot, Ted.
Henken: My pleasure.