Traveling to Cuba: Three Bowdoin Perspectives

We asked three people on Bowdoin’s campus with unique ties to Cuba to weigh in on the easing of travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba. The commentators, who offer insight and advice for both students and the general public on traveling to Cuba, are Christine Wintersteen, director of international programs and off-campus study; Genie Wheelwright, senior lecturer of Spanish; and Bridgett McCoy ’15, a senior who studied abroad in Cuba last year.

Photo by Genie Wheelwright

Christine Wintersteen

Can you tell me a bit about the history of students studying abroad in Cuba? 
Prior to 2005, there were several study abroad program providers and universities that held U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control-issued licenses to operate study abroad programs in Cuba, usually affiliated with the University of Havana. In my previous position as director of CIEE’s study abroad programs in Latin America and the Caribbean, I had visited the University of Havana in May 2004 to continue development work on a semester study abroad program. Shortly after my return from Havana, OFAC changed its regulations regarding U.S. educational programming in Cuba to make it much more restrictive. …After those changes, there were far fewer and less consistent study abroad programming in Cuba by a small number of U.S. universities and colleges that could sustain enrollment within their own student body. In January 2011, among other changes, OFAC announced regulatory changes that lifted this latter restriction. Bowdoin sent its first student to study abroad in Cuba during summer 2012 followed by three students during the 2013-2014 academic year.

What are your recommendations for students who want to study abroad in Cuba?
Cuba can be a fascinating place to study abroad. The country, a center of literary and cinematic work for decades, offers a rich cultural history for students to study and explore through coursework and attendance at festivals and affordable cultural events. The country has also been a political touchstone for the United States for more than half a century and offers students the possibility to consider the U.S. from a distinct political lens and to observe a society that has lived under a completely different governmental structure with complex and compelling differences in education, healthcare, and freedom of the press and political activity. However, like any other study abroad destination, any particular program and country needs to be the right match — and this is particularly so for Cuba. Prospective students thinking about studying abroad in Cuba should think about what their daily life will be like when living and studying in Havana. The differences and challenges of living in Cuba, such as access to a varied diet, may initially be appealing but they can, over time, be a real challenge.

Are the numbers of students interested in going increasing? 
Once a small cohort of Bowdoin students that had studied abroad in Cuba existed on campus, there did seem to be a slight increase in considering it. Students who study in Cuba take all of their coursework in Spanish, including courses taught at the university alongside locals. Due to the ability to study at the University of Havana, the range of academic offerings are broad, and include the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.

What kind of feedback have you heard from the four Bowdoin students who have studied in Cuba?
Students have been positive about their study abroad experience in Cuba and understand their experience living and studying there is unique, with one stating that “staying for a long time there is really the only way to cut through the fog of mutual misinformation between the U.S. and Cuba.” They have also said that meeting and interacting with Cubans in a meaningful way takes time and is more challenging than they had initially imagined. Like other students that have studied abroad, many want to return and, hopefully, with the easing of regulations, this will become a reality.

Do you have any suggestions for the non-student who wants to go to Cuba?
Currently, the easing of regulations still requires that people fall within specific categories such as journalism, cultural exchange or business. This may be changing in the near future as well since there is proposed legislation that would end the travel ban and allow independent travel to Cuba; but, for now, travel to Cuba for reasons of tourism are still restricted. So, first, it is important to pay attention to news regarding the feasibility of travel to the U.S. For now, the logistics of how the average traveler organizes their travel in Cuba is different than in most other countries in that payment is made to an organization or company that makes all the arrangements, and the arrangements once you are in Cuba are quite scheduled and organized. As such, each type of trip has a different audience (scholar, researcher, artist, community member) and finding the right type of trip does require some legwork.

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genie_baseball_papercupsGenie Wheelwright

Can you briefly describe your travels to Cuba?
I first traveled to Cuba in April 2000, with a group of educators from Maine, including my husband, Nat (professor of Biology at Bowdoin) and Allen Wells (professor of history at Bowdoin). We ranged from pre-school teachers to special education teachers to University of Southern Maine professors. Our week in Havana comprised visits to every type of school you can imagine, from day-care facilities to kindergartens, music and dance high schools to universities. Our visit coincided with the Elián González debacle and every student had been issued a T-shirt with the image of Elián on it. I remember one elementary school that greeted us by singing a song about the tyrannical United States and how we were keeping Elián from his beautiful island homeland. Quite the welcome! During this week we also traveled (unofficially) to Pinar del Río to the rural study site of a biology graduate student whose father happened to be a political prisoner in Cuba. That was a different perspective!

My second trip was in March of 2003 when I accompanied two Brunswick town councilors and several representatives of the Brunswick Trinidad Sister City Association to Trinidad for an official signing ceremony. We were treated like dignitaries during a week of special events put on for us by the officials of Trinidad. We visited clinics, schools, government institutions, the library, the cultural center, as well as many restaurants with live music.

How do you advise students, faculty and others who want to travel to Cuba?
I advise anyone with interest in seeing Cuba to start planning now to go there. Once U.S. citizens are truly free to travel there, changes will happen very quickly. Right now one cannot visit Cuba simply as a declared tourist. Students can study abroad on a licensed program. Faculty are allowed to pursue academic research in Cuba without obtaining a license if it falls within our government’s new guidelines. Others may travel with a licensed group, of which there are quite a few, on trips with a particular focus. These range from history to dance, education, social work, peace, health care, Afro-Cuban art, and so on. There are a number of travel agencies that have licenses and they plan the trips within the government’s guidelines. A few I know of are Common Ground, Marazul, and Cuba Education Tours. For details about the regulations, check out this site.

What kind of effects do you think a jump in tourists from the US could have on Cuba?
I am no expert on the cultural and economic impact one country can have on another, but I believe more U.S. tourists will definitely change Cuba. Up until now the typical visitor from the U.S. has been somewhat left-leaning and at least partially sympathetic to Cuba. While thousands have visited legally and illegally each year, these numbers will soar if restrictions are eliminated. The tourist infrastructure will be strained, to say the least. Of course the influx of U.S. money will also have a positive economic impact, but I don’t believe the benefits will be equally distributed. While the Cubans try hard to have an egalitarian society, the reality is that access to tourists increases significantly one’s ability to make money. We noticed even in 2000 that those working in tourist hotels tended to be lighter skinned. I fear that those with ties to the U.S. and those with lighter skin will know how to take better advantage of the new opportunities. Exposure to more Americans could also have a positive impact in terms of promoting democracy and the freedoms that we enjoy in the United States.

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Bridgett McCoyBridget McCoy ’15

What did you study when you were in Cuba last year?
We did a course with Cuban professors on classes related to Cuban culture. There was a class on cinema, literature, politics and sociology.

What was the most unexpected or surprising part of your time there?
My study abroad friends and I actually got to know some of the key people involved in the hip hop scene of Havana. I had never really been exposed to hip hop in the U.S., but found this to be an amazing way to meld my interests with social activism and music while learning more about the local culture.

Can you describe one of more interesting days/experiences you had or sights you saw?
Hard to say, but one time with a class we got the opportunity to go to a poor neighborhood to watch a sort of dance recital for a santería religious/community center. Even though the music and traditions were different than what I had ever experienced, it was really all the same: proud parents fretting over their kids’ costumes, talented hams hogging the spot light, and an overwhelming hospitality to share their culture with foreigners.

What advice do you have for other students interested in going to Cuba?
Dive into the culture to meet people. Some cubans can be wary of getting to know foreigners because of stigmas associated with people working in the “unofficial” service industry, but if you reach out to your classmates, get involved in the art scene, do a sport, or even just try a workout class, you’ll have a much more meaningful experience.

What is one of the best books you’ve read about Cuba?
I actually haven’t read many books about Cuba, but I’ve scene many films. The best one in my opinion is Lucia by Humberto Solás. It tells the story of the War of Independence, the failed revolution in the 1930s, and the revolution of the 1960s through the eyes of different women of different social standings, making commentaries on colonialism, capitalism, socialism’s effects on the country as a whole, and on the continued struggles of women throughout.

What was the best meal you had there? I can’t resist … everyone likes to talk about travel and food!
Cuban food is delicious, but food in Cuba is often not so good due to ingredient shortages. However, for Thanksgiving we were able to pull out all of the stops. The parents of one of the kids in my program had visited and brought some spices with them so we could make Thanksgiving styled food with the local fruits, veggies and meats, and our professors and friends were able to come and bring their traditional dishes like ropa vieja, pollo con mojo, black beans, and some amazing deserts!

How did the experience change you?
Being in Cuba made me much more aware of issues of race and social hierarchy. The socialist revolution made opportunities much more available for people at the bottom of the social hierarchy, poor blacks, than ever before, yet many inequalities still persisted and are being exacerbated with many of the new reforms. In Cuba, talking about race was not taboo, and people were franker with us than I had ever experienced. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on the ways race had shaped my experience in the U.S. and the experience of those around me that I had never considered before.

Photos submitted by Genie Wheelwright

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