Cuban high schoolers may come to U.S.

The U.S. State Department is offering $1.2 million to bring 75 to 100 Cuban high school students to the United States for “summer leadership” sessions, in a ongoing effort to provide educational opportunities to island youths.

Sessions will focus on “leadership development, civic education principles, and the structure of democratic organizations … from national governments to local [nongovernment organizations] and student advocacy groups,” the department said.

U.S. programs on Cuba are designed “to empower Cubans to freely determine their own future by increasing human capacity, promoting community level engagement, and expanding civil society networks,” according to last week’s announcement.

Cuban authorities have threatened or denied exit permits to students who wanted to participate in similar U.S. government-funded educational programs in the past, branding them as thinly veiled efforts to undermine the communist system.

The State Department said its Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA) section will consider proposals from U.S. nonprofits and higher-education institutions for the $1.2 million to organize and run the “Summer Leadership Program for Cuban Youth.”

The first program, in the summer of 2015, will bring 25 to 35 high school students to the United States for three- to four-week sessions, and the second year will bring another 50 to 65, according to the request for proposals.

Students will stay with U.S. families part of the time, don’t have to speak English, and will “participate in structured, youth-appropriate leadership activities and workshops in a safe environment, interact with American youth and gain first-hand experience of community engagement.”

“To maximize the cultural and linguistic benefit for the Cuban students, WHA strongly encourages applicants to consider the demographic and geographic diversity of the U.S. in project planning,” the announcement said.

WHA added that it reserves the right to award the grant money to more than one applicant or to none if none of proposals meets its criteria. If the program is successful, WHA “may consider additional supplemental funding to continue activities … or to support work on additional activities,” the announcement said.

The College of Communications at California State University, Fullerton, will have a number of Cuban university students participating this summer in specialized workshops on digital journalism, Dean William G. Briggs said in May.

“When you consider that Cuba’s a closed society, and that their idea of journalism, since 1959, has been to just basically spout the party line and say whatever Fidel [Castro] wanted them to say, the idea that they are going to come to the United States and learn modern digital communication techniques that they can take back with them, this is going to represent a very serious, major crack in the dam,” Briggs said. “And the Cuban government knows that. But they also know that they have to modernize their society.”

Another 15 island youths who received scholarships from the Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (FHRC) to study this year at Miami Dade College will be graduating this month from the five-month program.

Many of the 15 are the children of dissidents or independent activists, such as bloggers and musicians. Some had been expelled from their Cuban schools because of their activism. One other scholarship recipient returned early to Cuba.

The FHRC program will expand soon with up to 40 students enrolled in Florida universities and has a goal of 80-100 students enrolled each semester, Jorge Mas Santos, president of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), said last month.

Senior CANF members founded the FHRC in 1992 as a nonprofit to collect assistance for human-rights activists on the island. It now helps groups such as the Ladies in White and the Patriotic Union of Cuba.

FHRC Executive Director Pedro Rodriguez said Sunday that the State Department’s new summer program is completely unrelated to his foundation’s scholarships for the MDC students, although the FHRC is considering applying for the $1.2 million grant.

“This is different and separate, but within the parameters of what we can do,” Rodriguez said.

The U.S. Agency for International Development awarded a three-year, $3.4 million grant to the FHRC in 2011, which expires at the end of September, to support human rights on the island.

Rodriguez said the great majority of the costs of the MDC scholarships — including travel, lodging, and food estimated at $12,000 to $15,000 per student — was funded by $600,000 that the FHRC collects each year from private donors.

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