Connecting HBCUs with Cuba Makes Sense for Dollars, the Diaspora and Dissent

As college attendance and graduation become more societal expectation than elitist marker, HBCUs must keep recruitment and retention options open. One place where international interests can converge? Cuba. Cuba’s proximity, pigmentation (hola, Afro-Cubanos!) and political support of liberation seekers could make underdog institutions a natural fit to work with the island nation.   

Last December, President Barack Obama announced that the US and Cuba will re-establish diplomatic relations. Talks of establishing an American embassy in Cuba continue. So, how will the two countries move forward cohesively? In a higher education context, HBCUs can position themselves as attractive options to support global White House aims.  

If HBCUs vie for inclusion, and the Obama administration is receptive, then black colleges and universities can aid the president’s 100,000 Strong in the Americas goal. The goal was envisioned for students originally from Latin American and Caribbean nations to study in the United States and American students to study in Latin America and the Caribbean. Per the White House website, 100,000 students would participate by the year 2020.

In many ways, the timing for an HBCU-Cuba alliance couldn’t be better. The year 2020 is practically around the corner. There’s also much to be said for Cuba, in colloquial terms, holding us down. Despite political pressures and an increased bounty, Cuba refused to dishonor political asylum and extradite activist Assata Shakur.

It’s also an interesting time for oppression resistance. Social media, citizen journalism and other forms of cyber communication show the global community the source of many people’s scars.

And as contemporary HBCU students, faculty, administration and alumni spoke to our collective consciousness via the “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” and “I can’t breathe” movements against racist police brutality, older generations remembered Shakur. Shakur, too, was shot with her hands up. She was subjected to questionable trials, ultimately convicted of murder, and broken out of prison to live in exile in Cuba.

Bringing HBCUs and Cubans together makes sense for both the culture and capital. Just as HBCUs sign memoranda of understanding to transition domestic community college students into our folds, we can continue agreements like those already existing between HBCUs and Brazil. The HBCU-Brazil alliance, started in 2008, was designed to send Brazilians to study at HBCUs. Morgan State University is the lead institution for the alliance.

Afro-Latino histories often parallel those of slave-descended African Americans. And HBCUs have proven time and again to be viable academic options for disenfranchised people to build their minds, selves and communities. Just as students from various domestic states pay tuition, attain scholarships and learn to coalesce with students of different walks of life at HBCUs, the same potential exists with global black people, and other people of color, at historically black institutions.  

The White House website asserts, “The U.S. will take steps to increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba.” Higher education is a logical step to further each of these aims.

As the United States eases off the Cuban embargo, Cubans, in Cuba and America, can benefit from exchanges between the nations. Boosting business can bring more people to the table and can even place HBCUs at the table. Participation in and pursuit of global citizenship are not new for HBCUs, as many have study abroad programs and recruit international professors. One example is Dillard University, with a third of its faculty born outside of the United States.

Of improved US and Cuban relations, President Obama said, “America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future — for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world.” As shackles disappear from that relationship, let’s not forget the schools training legions of people formerly in those shackles.

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