Embargoed Exchange: A Critical Case Study of Study Abroad Programming Between the United States and Cuba

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Internationalization continues to remain a central focus within the U.S. university environment. Internationalization motives are under question as neoliberal policies continue to limit sustained, long-term state funding for public universities and undermine the academic mission of these universities. Universities are leveraging internationalization practices, like study abroad programming, in response to the pressures of neoliberalism. Using both an academic capitalist and post-colonial lens, this dissertation seeks to understand how study abroad programming, specifically in non-traditional locations (viz., Cuba), operates within and is shaped by political and economic contexts.

In this study, qualitative case study methods were used to critically examine study abroad programming between the United States and Cuba before, during and after the Obama Administration’s announcement changing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba on December 17, 2014. The perspectives of 12 of the main actors in the field, including educational administrators and faculty from U.S universities, Cuban universities, and study abroad program providers, were captured to provide a more comprehensive view of U.S. study abroad implementation in Cuba.

The findings illustrate four key aspects of the political and economic context that significantly impact study abroad programming. First, the U.S. blockade (embargo) on Cuba is shown to hinder academic operation and impede international relationship building. Additionally, the neoliberal and neo-colonial university environment in which study abroad programming is situated leads to the reproduction of colonial dynamics and amplifies inequities and power dynamics within North-South study abroad programs. Yet, in the face of neoliberal and neo-colonial pressures, solidarity building emerged as a key area for resistance within these programs. Thus, two opposing approaches, market-based and solidarity building, are dictating how study abroad programming is developed and implemented. The tensions between these approaches provide insight into the liminal space within which educational administrators and faculty develop and facilitate study abroad programming. Therefore, this dissertation critically analyzes the political and economic environment in which study abroad operates to determine implications for internationalization practice and policy in an effort to guide the future international dimensions of the university.