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In Cuba, students get rare view behind curtain

By Mike Moore

March 14, 2014

Just 90 miles south of the United States, Cuba remains a forbidden destination to American tourists — but not to Carthage students.

During the 2014 J-Term, professors Jeffrey Roberg and Penny Seymoure led a group of 13 students and five community members on a study tour to the enigmatic country. Titled “Life and Politics: Surviving Socialism and the U.S. Embargo in Cuba,” the course analyzed the impact of the 54-year-old economic embargo on the island and its residents.

This was the first Carthage excursion to Cuba since the U.S. loosened regulations in 2011, allowing groups to travel there for academic purposes.

“The idea of being able to visit a place that has been ‘off limits’ for the duration of my lifetime and my parents’ lifetime was very exciting,” said Ben Fox ’16, a political science and economics major from Janesville, Wis.

Students dance with members of Los Abuelos de la Fiesta in Santa Clara, Cuba, during J-Term 2014. The organization promotes the arts and performs service projects for children and retirees.Students dance with members of Los Abuelos de la Fiesta in Santa Clara, Cuba, during J-Term 2014. The organization promotes the arts and performs service projects for children and retirees.The group visited five distinct areas of the island. That gave students a cross-section of modern Cuban life.

“Cuba truly is a land of contrast,” Ben said. “We had the opportunity to witness pro-regime propaganda, as well as the flaws of the socialist system. We visited wealthy cities of vibrant color and complex architecture, and we visited poor cities in which even running water was hard to come by.”

That was one of a dozen destinations for January study tours. Another 10 study tours will depart this summer from Carthage, which ranks No. 6 among baccalaureate institutions nationwide for student participation in short-term study abroad.

Stress and adaptation

Cuba was undoubtedly the most politically contentious country that students saw this winter, and that made for some compelling firsthand lessons. Prof. Roberg, who teaches political science, provided the policy background on the embargo, which has been in force since 1960. Prof. Seymoure, who teaches psychology and neuroscience, delved into the psychological toll.

“Students also learned that the U.S. embargo does not affect all Cubans evenly, and that there are ‘haves and have nots’ who have either benefited or been hurt by the Cuban political and economic system and policies by the United States,” Prof. Seymoure said. “They also learned that the majority of Cuban citizens do not have animosity toward citizens of the United States. Rather, they understood that the main disagreements are between the two governments and not the peoples, who have much in common.”

Cubans have become resourceful to endure the embargo. For example, Prof. Roberg noted the number of 1950s-era Chevrolets still dotting Cuban roads even though the original engines and parts were relegated to the junkyard long ago.

“They’ve found ways to keep these cars rolling,” he said, “and some of them are just stellar.”

Although Cuban-Americans bring back money and goods and Cuba still actively trades with other countries, students learned that the embargo has hampered cancer patients’ ability to receive treatments only available from the United States.

Political and cultural discussions

The professors followed the same travel route they took a decade earlier, before the U.S. government implemented tighter regulations that significantly lessened the number of students who could go there. The journey began and ended in the capital of Havana.

At the beginning, the students met for two hours with Hugo Pons, an economic adviser to Cuban President Raul Castro. At the end, they met with a staff member at the United States Interests Section — which takes the place of an embassy.

In between, the Carthage contingent spent time at a variety of historical and cultural sites. The route brought students to Playa Giron (the Bay of Pigs) and a memorial to revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, as well as to a demonstration of ancestral and contemporary Cuban dances.

In the mountainous city of Santa Clara, the group donated 18 textbooks to the local university. With educators hamstrung by the embargo, one or two textbooks often are shared among an entire class. Later, Carthage students chatted with English-speaking counterparts over dinner — even teaching them how to take “selfies.”

“It was a chance for them to participate in this cultural interaction that’s hard to do in another setting,” said Prof. Seymoure.

The group arrived in the city of Trinidad in time to join its 500th anniversary celebration. Named one of Lonely Planet’s 10 most essential travel destinations of 2014, the city had been transformed from the quaint place the professors found on their previous stay.

Bureaucratic mishaps

Until a few weeks before departure, it was unclear if the study tour could proceed. With no U.S. bank to manage its accounts, Cuba suspended visa services in November. A temporary extension was granted in December, allowing the Carthage contingent to go within the short window of time before the country stopped processing visas again in February.

The city of Trinidad was among the stops on a 2014 Carthage J-Term study tour to Cuba. The group joined in the city's quincentennial celebration.The city of Trinidad was among the stops on a 2014 Carthage J-Term study tour to Cuba. The group joined in the city's quincentennial celebration.Other hiccups followed, something the faculty members warned students to expect in a nation whose government remains at odds with American leaders. The itinerary was kept fluid.

“They rolled with the punches really well,” Prof. Roberg said.

Beyond the specific course work, the two faculty leaders agreed that study tours help students become better global citizens. By navigating unfamiliar customs, meeting locals, and sampling new foods, they said, these young adults gained a healthier understanding of the Cuban culture.

Ian McDonald ’14, a history major from Green Bay, Wis., said the study tour gave him a chance to form a deeper bond with his professors, too. He and other students found it difficult to sum up their unique experiences in Cuba.

The mix of diesel fumes and humidity that greeted the travelers upon landing stunned Ian. But he said that impression faded quickly as the citizens won him over with their kindness and national pride.

“I have a new respect for the Cuban people and their ways of life, I have been awestruck by the incredible beauty of their country, and, most of all, I have been bitten by the travel bug,” Ian said. “I want to go everywhere. I want to see everything. I want to do everything, and for that I only have Carthage to thank.”