Greg Alexander

Cuba: so close, yet so far

Baltimore Sun, September 2004

Cuba. A mysterious island nation just 90 miles off the coast of Key West, Fla., that has captivated and challenged Americans for decades. A country for years that has been “off limits” for American tourists, sans for limited access for Cuban-Americans visiting relatives in Cuba and academic/cultural excursions for college students and cultural groups. American college students majoring in anything from political science to history to Spanish have ventured to Cuba through university exchange programs to learn more about our neighbor. However, newly imposed travel restrictions by the Bush Administration have left many of these programs in jeopardy and have local colleges scrambling for alternatives.

Traditionally, Cuba exchange programs were scheduled in summer sessions or in intersessions, which are shorter sessions falling between semesters at some and universities. Courses involved classroom instruction here in the United States followed by a trip to Cuba, usually 12 to 14 days in cooperation with a Cuban university, where students learned more about Cuban culture. These courses were held in intersessions so that students could take them and leave campus for two weeks, something that would be impossible during a traditional semester when students were taking several other courses. However, in June, the Bush Administration imposed new travel restrictions that mandated that Cuban exchange programs must be at least 10 weeks long, which in effect would make these programs impossible, as students would have to drop out of school for the semester.

“The new travel restrictions make it impossible to take students to Cuba, and the course would not be the same without the trip there,” says Wayne Smith, Ph.D., the director of the academic exchange program with Cuba for Johns Hopkins University (JHU). Since 1997, JHU has sponsored the Johns Hopkins-Cuba January Seminar in collaboration with the University of Havana. In addition to visiting several cities in Cuba, students gained knowledge via Cuba’s leading scholars, artists and performers. Additionally, a public health course at the university included a Cuban trip in May.

“We were in the process of setting up a course on Cuban culture – film, literature, fine arts, music and dance – for the summer 2005 term; however, that is now on hold. I’m in high hopes that the restrictions will be removed or neutralized by Congress. There’s large support for ending these travel controls,” says Smith, who is a senior fellow at The Center for International Policy, served 25 years with the Department of State and has been recognized as a leading expert on Cuba. Smith says that JHU students were in Cuba in 1998 the same time as Pope John Paul II, which was “an amazing experience for the students.”

“The trips to Cuba are the best for our students. You really need that in-person contact with the Cuban people to truly learn about their culture,” says Leonor Blum, associate professor of history at The College of Notre Dame of Maryland (CND). “I just hope things change with an administration change in November,” says Blum, who has led a two-week trip to Cuba three times.

Blum says that CND’s program, “Exploring Cuban Society,” is a general one where students study many facets of Cuban culture. “We study their educational system, which is quite good, and Cuba’s health care system, which they are very proud to share. We visit hospitals and talk to doctors; Cubans are very willing to show you everything if you have the right permits.” Blum says that one of the most interesting elements of past trips has been when 20 CND students and 20 students from the University of Havana got together to discuss Cuban/United States political relations and found that their perspectives on the ongoing political tensions were quite different. “They got together and talked, which was so beneficial,” says Blum, who adds that if the travel restrictions are not lifted, she will look at courses involving trips to Peru or Brazil.

Students from Towson University have also learned about Cuban culture from past trips to Cuba, specifically about politics, says James Roberts, Ph.D., the chairman of the department of political science. Towson’s course, “Cuba Today: Revolution and Counter-Revolution” involves a semester-long course that studies Cuba since 1959 followed by a 12-day seminar in Cuba to observe the politics first-hand. Students learn about the Cuban Revolution, one of the most complex historical events of the 20th century, and Counter-Revolution efforts in the United States. “The travel component is a wonderful way to expose students to the culture and politics of Cuba,” says Roberts.

Towson’s trips to Cuba have been led by David Dent, Ph.D., a professor in the political science department. “This year was the second time we’ve done the trip to Cuba, and the first time it was through the political science department,” says Dent, who has visited Cuba several times. “The Revolution/Counter-Revolution theme is interesting since 1.5 million Cubans live in the United States due to the Revolution. We study the role of the United States, the 45-year hostility between the two countries, lobbying efforts and how the relationship has developed. Students who go there come back energized and want to work to help change the policies of the Bush Administration.”

As an alternative to trips to Cuba, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) course utilizes the Internet to facilitate conversation between U.S. and Cuban students. “U.S. and Cuba – Bridging the Blockade” allows UMBC students to connect with Cuban youth in online dialogue to study social issues. A minimum of two semesters of university-level Spanish is required for the course.

Bev Bickel, director of the English Language Center at UMBC and instructor of the course, says the course’s inclusion in the American Studies department is a perfect fit. “We can no longer learn about the United States in isolation; we need a global perspective,” she says. The bilingual course begins with Bickel finding out what her students know about Cuba. UMBC students then talk to their peers to learn what they know. She says that the students concluded that most Americans’ knowledge of Cuba is limited to the “Three C’s”: Castro, cigars and Communism. Other topics that students were familiar with included the Bays of Pigs invasion, mojitos (a Cuban cocktail), the Cuban baseball team’s exchange program with the Orioles and Elian Gonzalez. “The students found that Americans have very strong opinions about Cuba; however, they have little knowledge about Cuba,” says Bickel.

Bickel says UMBC and Cuban students emailed primarily about music and culture. “Music is a common human language, and Cuban music has always had a profound effect on U.S. music.” Bickel notes that Cubans have free email accounts, but Internet access is limited. “Email correspondence is limited, especially with bilingual translations. My students concluded that they need to go to Cuba for face-to-face correspondence; they are anxious and hopeful.”

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