Cuba in Transition. It caught my eye while perusing Miami University’s J-Term study abroad opportunities last summer. But how could this ITS/LAS 299 class offer immersion learning in Cuba when we’ve had a commercial, economic and financial embargo against Cuba since October 1960?
Born and raised in a predominantly Hispanic Miami, Florida, I was exposed early on to the U.S.-Cuba political tension. I heard the hostility toward Cuba from older Cuban-Americans. I experienced the Elian Gonzalez fiasco and celebrative uproar when Fidel Castro stepped down in 2006.
Consequently, this anti-Castro environment gave me a negative view of Cuba. My Cuban-American friends gave me mixed opinions before my Jan. 4 departure: “Most Cubans won’t go to Cuba;” “You should reconsider;” “I would love to go, but my grandmother would be against it.” I decided to seize the opportunity to experience the real Cuba and determine if Cuba deserved thistaboo.
The course’s focus on contemporary Cuba, led by Miami professors Melanie Ziegler and Juan Carlos Albarran, began fall semester with monthly night classes. In this 20-person course, we read, discussed and wrote about Cuba’s history, politics, culture and economics based on our text, “Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know,” by Julia Sweig, who came to campus as a guest lecturer for the Grayson Kirk lecture series.
The field study began in Miami, Fla., where we went to Little Havana, a neighborhood where Miami’s heaviest Cuban influence permeates.
The Versaille Restaurant, “the world’s most famous Cuban restaurant,” is a local gathering spot where commentary by Cuban exiles can be heard regarding Cuban social and political issues, especially by the ventanita, a walk-up window to purchase Cuban coffee, or cafecito.
Here, the group was introduced to the cafecito. We had a colada, a Styrofoam cup containing six shots of cafecito with small demitasses, meant for sharing. For Java lovers, the Cuban coffee leaves an everlasting positive impact. And the secret to the Cuban coffee: sugar. As it’s brewed, the dark espresso roast is sweetened with sugar.
After a 35-minute bumpy flight in an unmarked plane and after receiving the rare Cuba entry stamp on my American passport, our charter bus left the JosÃ© Marti Airport.
With one look out the window, something brought a smile to my face: classic cars from the 1950s. Throughout the trip, everyone basked in the beauty of this distinctive feature of Cuba.
Time spent in Havana brought me eye-opening experiences. Walking through Old Havana’s Four Plazas introduced us to the five centuries of historic, colorful architecture with one picturesque side street leading us to La Bodeguita del Medio, the birthplace of the mojito and Ernest Hemingway’s local favorite.
Walking through Cuba’s Chinatown, visiting Ernest Hemingway’s home, seeing the inspiration for “The Old Man and the Sea” and eating authentic, savory Cuban cuisine at paladares (restaurants in private homes) contributed to an understanding about Cuba I wouldn’t have fully grasped from a textbook or “The Miami Herald.”
Attending a baseball game with no replay screens or advertisements showed me “El Deporte, Conquista De La Revolucion” and a leisurely passion that unites Cubans for a mere 12-cent admission.
Driving toward centrally-located Trinidad and Cienfuegos and away from the clichÃ© Havana tourism, led to breathtaking landscapes capturing my gaze for hours.
The highway’s backdrop included mountains, occasional socialism and revolution signs and land filled with grazing oxen, horses and goats by royal palm trees. Thatched palm umbrella huts lined the beach on sand leading to turquoise water and gradually transitioning in the distance to the dark ocean blue hue.
Walking the cobblestone streets of a 500-year-old immaculately restored Trinidad showed me a more authentic Cuba Americans haven’t seen aside from the ubiquitous images of Havana’s dilapidated buildings.
As for excitement, an earthquake rattled Havana upon our return from Cienfuegos and Fidel Castro made an appearance at Havana’s National Museum of Fine Arts the day before we were scheduled to attend. And anyone can read about the Bay of Pigs, but we swam in it.
Safety in Cuba was never a problem. On our way to the Submarino Amarillo (Yellow Submarine), a lounge for listening to American 60s and 70s rock and roll, our taxi driver said severe punishments are elicited if a Cuban harms a tourist because of the economic dependence on tourism.
I noted the friendliness of the Cuban people and their curiosity about Americans. The people we spoke with, including University of Havana students, yielded an insight we might not read in a CNN article.
The students receive five megabytes of Internet per month, equivalent to two web pages.
Experiencing Cuba’s transition, albeit a slow one, helped me grow out of my negative perspective on Cuba and develop a fondness for the island only 90 miles south of us.
And while looking out the plane across the Straits of Florida, I could only hope for the day the U.S. government finally lifts the embargo and gives love and honor to our friendly neighbors.