An eight-day trip to Cuba as part of a Cuban culture course marked not only the first exchange to the communist country from Western Carolina University, but also one of the first nationwide since the Obama administration relaxed student travel restrictions to the island nation earlier this year. So recent was the change in travel restrictions that when the WCU group of seven students and faculty member Lori Oxford arrived in October, they were met with suspicion by someone who did not appear to be familiar with the new protocol.
“An immigration official held my passport until I was able to answer his extremely detailed questions about what we were really doing there,” said Oxford, who teaches Spanish and the Cuban culture course. “After the very polite interrogation, which was accompanied by suggestions of other places to visit in Havana or activities for the students, I asked why I was being questioned. I was watching my students gathered in one spot, glancing nervously over at me. His answer was that there had been several recent small-scale terrorist attacks committed by Americans in Havana, and that he just needed to make sure that we weren’t a terrorist group. He was laughing as he said this, though, and handed my passport back to me, which led me to believe that he had just spouted what he had been told to say in such situations.”
Relations between the U.S. and the Caribbean nation about 90 miles from the Florida coast have been tense for decades characterized by such events as the 1961 Bay of Pigs, a U.S.-supported attempt to overthrow Cuba’s then-leader Fidel Castro, and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a Soviet Union-supported build-up in Cuba of nuclear weapons capable of reaching American cities in minutes. After the past 50 years during which United States citizens have been restricted from spending money in or directly traveling to Cuba, the Obama administration in January introduced a change that created a new way for students to legally travel to Cuba – by doing so in affiliation with a program of study at an accredited institution. The president said the change was intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people and support civil society.
Oxford will share how the experience in Cuba moved and affected the students as part of the keynote address at the 2011-12 induction ceremony for new members of Phi Beta Delta honor society on Monday, Nov. 14. The event, which begins at 6 p.m. in the Multipurpose Room of A.K. Hinds University Center, is free and open to the public, and honors inductees WCU faculty member Paul Dezendorf and students Kylee Baquero, Jessica Burkley, Jessica Harless, Marcelo Maia and Jacqueline Marshall. Oxford plans to describe how their experience with Cubans was very different from what most in the U.S. might expect. Most are happy living there and don’t want to leave, for instance, she said.
“What a lot of Americans don’t realize is that Cubans love Americans for the most part,” said Oxford, who had previously traveled to Cuba to conduct research for her doctoral dissertation. “They are, unlike most people in the U.S., completely able to separate their opinions of the government of a country and the people of a country. Most Cubans feel that the U.S. government is the bully of the Americas, or even the world, but they consider the American people ‘nuestro pueblo hermano,’ which means ‘our brothers.’ I think this is something that the students really were surprised to see, that they were embraced and not resented by all the Cubans with whom they came in contact.”
Alex Venditti, senior from Charlotte majoring in Spanish with a minor in hospitality and tourism, said she was surprised by the jovial spirit she encountered during a walk through an area in which people were living in poverty. “Almost every person we met and saw in Habana did not complain about anything, and they did not have anything, for the most part, besides their family and friends,” said Venditti. “The experience of walking through the street made me appreciate everything I have in my life, especially my friends and family.”
Jessica Jaqua, a junior from Franklin double majoring in English literature and Spanish, said that she was surprised when the six power blackouts that happened while they were there were emerged as opportunities to socialize. “You would hear people on their porches playing music, and people laughing and talking outside by candlelight,” said Jaqua. “They are very community-oriented, and I envy them for that.”
She also particularly enjoyed the food – the strong, flavorful coffee, the rice and beans, and the ice cream. “Cubans are ice cream fanatics, and I can see why,” she said. “The ice cream was amazing.”
Jaqua enrolled in the Cuban culture course because she had heard stories about her grandmother, who was from Cuba, but never stories from her grandmother herself. “I wanted to see for myself a place none of the rest of my family had seen, and to get to see what Cubans were like – their passion and attitudes toward life,” said Jaqua.
On every day of the trip, the students participated in a walking tour of historical and cultural sites, including el Malecón, the Capitol, the Plaza de la Revolución where Castro used to give his speeches; the Colón Cemetery, where more than 1 million people are buried; and the most famous ice cream shop in all Latin America – Coppelia. The group also explored different neighborhoods and boroughs “to compare how the different classes live in what is supposed to be a ‘class-free’ society,” said Oxford.
Part of the travel coursework was tied to the WCU Poverty Project in that the students witnessed another type of poverty, said Oxford. The average monthly salary in Cuba is $20, and the government maintains control of mass media, including TV, radio and newspapers, and limits Internet access, according to the U.S. Department of State.
“In Cuba, people are housed and fed, but they lack access to so many opportunities and so much information that we are examining this as a brand of poverty,” said Oxford.
To travel to places too far to walk, the group took “máquinas de diez pesos,” which are taxis that are primarily U.S. cars from the 1950s, said Oxford. (The government has restricted car buying and selling since then, though new laws are changing that.) “It costs 10 Cuban pesos, which is about 40 cents in U.S. dollars, for each person, no matter how far you go in the city, as long as you stick to a couple of major routes,” said Oxford.
Meanwhile, they met with Juan Nicolás Padrón, an acclaimed poet, essayist and editor with a background in literature, history, philosophy and pedagogy, of the cultural institution Casa de las Américas. “Padrón gave several lectures to the group and met with us for question-and-answer sessions about everything from politics to cultural expectations,” said Oxford.
The group also discussed Cuban films such as the 2002 documentary “Suite Habana” by Fernando Pérez that demonstrates a day in the life of individuals and families in Havana, and students recognized many of the sites shown in the film from their trip.
“Since everything in Cuba closes down on Sundays, we took a bus to a nearby beach – one that is usually frequented by Cubans instead of tourists,” said Oxford. “Even though the water felt warm to us, we had the beach to ourselves since for Cubans the season had already turned too cold for beach-going.”
Claudia Bryant, assistant director of International Programs and Services, said IPS staff are working to sure that other faculty-led courses to Cuba will be feasible in the years ahead.
“We are delighted to be able to add Cuba to our list of possible destinations for our students who are interested in studying abroad,” Bryant said.
In addition to Oxford’s presentation at the event for Phi Beta Delta, a campus organization open to students, staff and faculty who have shared experience in international affairs, her students will present their findings and findings on topics related to Cuban culture at a mini-symposium later this semester. For more information, contact Oxford at 828-227-2769 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Teresa Killian Tate