April 22, 2019 | 59° F

Rutgers community discusses Obama's trip to Cuba

Photo by Marielle Sumergido |

November 2015 | U.S. President Barack Obama will speak to the class of 2016 on May 15 at 12:30 p.m.

The improvement of relations between the United States and Cuba comes at an ideal time for Rutgers to expand its already established connections with the Caribbean state.

During his historic tour of Cuba, President Barack Obama — the first sitting American president to visit the country in nearly 90 years — vowed to usher in a new period of coexistence between the two nations and end decades of hostility.

“I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” Obama said in his address on Tuesday in Havana. “I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.”

The new approach by the White House has been welcomed by the Rutgers Centers for Global Advancement and International Affairs (GAIA), which coordinates the University’s global initiatives and oversee its academic relations with foreign countries, including Cuba.

“As the United States strengthens its ties with Cuba, Rutgers similarly is looking forward to continuing strengthening scholarly relations to advance research and other academic endeavors with Cuba,” said Carissa Sestito, assistant director of marketing and communications for the GAIA centers.

Under the administration of former President George W. Bush, academic involvement with the island was substantially limited, said Eugene Murphy, assistant vice president for International and Global Affairs.

“The changes that President Obama has initiated just make it easier for educational institutions to begin to collaborate,” he said. “People can more easily interact in a way that fosters research and problem solving.”

Dialogue between the two countries commenced after an announcement by Obama in December 2014, and diplomatic relations were officially restored last summer when the American and Cuban embassies in Havana and Washington, D.C. were re-established.

Since the opening talks, the GAIA centers have organized a committee — composed of faculty from various schools and campuses in Rutgers with research interests in Cuba — to look for ways to coordinate initiatives with the island-nation.

Kathleen López, an associate professor in the Department of Latino and Caribbean Studies, is directing the committee and said the meeting between Obama and his Cuban counterpart, President Raúl Castro, will serve as testimony to a new chapter of relations with Cuba.

Moreover, the University will benefit from Obama’s visit, and his proposal for a new relationship with the once perceived hostile nation, López said.

“The eventual opening of commercial flights to Cuba will simply make it easier for students and faculty to travel,” she said. “Right now you need to use a charter company and the flights are very expensive and only come out of certain airports.”

Last year, the International Institute of Education selected Rutgers to be part of an academic trip to Cuba. Through the initiative, Murphy and López visited many of the universities in the Caribbean nation and met with fellow scholars and administrators.

“We talked about what kinds of things could be possible and what the challenges to collaboration might be,” Murphy said. “We then strategized how Rutgers can better collaborate with those Cuban institutions.”

Although cautiously optimistic, López said the universities in Cuba were eager to establish joint efforts with academic institutions here in the United States.

Along with the recent faculty and staff visit, Sestito said Rutgers offers different study abroad programs for students interested in learning in Cuba and about circumstances on the island. The programs are open to students in all four campuses.

Murphy is certain that global education provides new perspectives and techniques for students and faculty to bring home.

“Our job is to help faculty and students in their quest to educate themselves and educate others, and you can’t do that in this world if its not international,” he said. “There has to be some form of global knowledge.”

The long-awaited restoration of ties with the Cuban people should be celebrated, Murphy said.

“It is critically important that we open up to one of our closest neighbors,” he said. “With so many people of Cuban ancestry in the United States, we are really exited to see things begin to be possible.”


Camilo Montoya-Galvez is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student majoring in Spanish and journalism and media studies. He is a correspondent for The Daily Targum. Follow him on Twitter @camiloooom.

Camilo Montoya-Galvez

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