Amid thawing US/Cuba relations, UNA sends first student abroad

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FLORENCE, Ala. (WHNT) –  Relations between the U.S. and Cuba are thawing. Earlier this month, President Obama removed Cuba from the U.S. government's list of state sponsors of terrorism.

As several lawmakers work to make the relationship more diplomatic, it's paving the way for students here in north Alabama to travel to Cuba and be part of history.

It's no secret the U.S. and Cuba have not had the best relationship for more than 50 years, but as President Obama aims to strengthen the relationship, some things are changing and opening doors right here in north Alabama.

"This is the first significant change towards lifting the embargo that has happened in a long time," said UNA Dean of Arts and Sciences Carmen Burkhalter, Ph.D.

For the past 14 years, Burkhalter has partnered with the University of Alabama on the "Cuba Project"-- to improve relations on an academic level.

"Being able to partner in this part of the state with a different part of the state, we believe gives strength to the state of Alabama being a leader in the relationship with Cuba," said Burkhalter.

This semester, UNA sent its first student ever to Cuba.

"Students that are in Cuba right now are experiencing and learning about Cuban-American history in a way that will be written in textbooks years from now," said Burkhalter.

Burkhalter hopes improved relations will help trade, the economy and research in both nations.

"Alabama has been very progressive, when you look at the proximity of Alabama to Cuba... it's not that far," said Burkhalter.

But not everybody is on board with President Obama's plan to improve relations.  Some are still wary because Cuba is still a communist country.  Tuesday, House Republicans unveiled legislation  to sharply curb the Obama administration's recent moves to ease restrictions on travel to Cuba.

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