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One Cuba, Three Perspectives

Story by
Nancy Joseph
September 2012Perspectives Newsletter
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A sidestreet in Havana. Media credit: Alexandra Doyle

Despite its small size and limited resources, Cuba has loomed large in U.S. foreign policy. At the same time, its exile community in the U.S. has influenced American elections, both local and national. To explore Cuba’s complex relationship with the U.S., the UW’s Comparative History of Ideas Program (CHID) and Spanish & Portuguese Studies (SPS) developed a study abroad program in Cuba, offered for the first time during Summer Quarter 2012.

“What drew me to Cuba is the space it occupies in the U.S. political sphere, which is completely out of whack with its actual strategic and economic importance,” explains Amy Peloff, assistant director of CHID, who led the course with Lani Phillips, administrator and director of program development for the UW study center in León, Spain. “For our program, we chose to focus on unraveling the interdependence of these two countries.”

The program is actually three consecutive courses that provide three perspectives. First comes The Cuban Image in the American Mind, offered in Seattle, which provides an historical framework for studying Cuba and Cuban-American relations. Next students travel to Havana and Santiago de Cuba for The Cuban Image in the Cuban Mind, which explores Cuban identity through classes, guest speakers, site visits, and individual projects. The final course, The Dialectics of Cuban and American Identities, takes place in Miami, where the Cuban exile community has a strong presence.

“There is never one side to any story,” says Phillips. “We wanted to use a three-pronged approach to explore and understand the complexities of Cuba, which we felt would allow students to come to their own conclusions about the country, its people, and U.S.-Cuban relations.“

Meeting Bloggers, Rappers, and Other Cubans

Phillips and Peloff traveled to Cuba earlier in the year to iron out logistics for the visit. The country’s emphasis on tourism, and its desire to control visitors’ experiences, proved to be a source of frustration for the pair but also an inspiration. It led them to develop the Cuba segment around the theme of tourism—more specifically, how the country portrays itself differently to local citizens and tourists. “By focusing the course on tourism, all of the experiences we had served as material for the class, which we could discuss and analyze.”

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The CHID group visits el Castillo del Morro in Santiago de Cuba. Media credit: Alexandra Doyle

Students found tourism to be limiting in Havana, but less so in Santiago de Cuba, where they befriended locals and explored with more freedom. “I felt like I was in two Cubas,” says CHID major Alexandra Doyle. “Havana is completely driven
for tourists. In Santiago, the locals were more excited to have conversations with us, beyond just roping us in to sell us something.” In fact, says Doyle, Cubans were thrilled to learn that she and her classmates were students, not tourists. “You’d see their expression change,” she recalls. “They were so pleased that Americans would come to Cuba and be interested and ask questions of them. I didn’t expect that welcome for us as Americans. I expected more resentment.”

Most of the students’ informal conversations with Cubans took place outside of organized excursions. That’s no surprise to Phillips and Peloff, who encouraged students to explore and make connections on their own. “I think that was the most exhilarating aspect for them,” says Phillips. “I saw the excitement on their faces when they were able to have in-depth conversations with people. At that moment, Cuba stopped being a country and a people they had only read about and instead became real.”

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Anthony Mustacich, aka Prince Kapone (center, in grey shirt) poses with rappers (from left) Poetalinko, Fila, Osmani, Maxamilian, and (kneeling) El Professor in Santiago de Cuba.

That was certainly true for political science major Anthony Mustacich, who arrived in Cuba with strong pro-Castro leanings. Through interactions with locals, his views became more nuanced. “Over time, and through many intimate interactions with Cubans, I became more aware of the problems that Cubans have to grapple with on a daily basis, including political repression and police harassment,” says Mustacich. “I already knew that these problems existed, so it didn’t really change my perception of the Cuban revolution, but it did make me more critical of certain policies of the Cuban government.”

Beyond politics, Mustacich connected with Cubans on a creative level. As a rapper, he sought out the top rappers in Cuba and collaborated with them on an album. “That had long been a goal of mine,” he says. “It was the highlight of my trip.”

For others, a highlight was a visit with Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, a dissident living in Havana, who writes unflinchingly about the challenges of life in Cuba. The group joined her and several blogger friends for pizza at her home, spending four hours chatting and asking questions.

“To me, it was the most important night of the program,” says Phillips. “In the U.S., meeting with a writer like her may not seem like something extraordinary, but our students’ Cuban friends would not join us—even though they wanted to—because they knew her house was being watched by the Cuban government and they feared repercussions. That really put the importance of what we were doing in perspective.”

Comparing Truths

After a month in Cuba, the course switched gears for a final week in Miami. The group met with members of the Cuban exile community to hear their perspective on their former homeland. It was, by all accounts, a difficult transition.

“Miami was a shock after being in Cuba,” says Phillips. “In Cuba, the friends we made were very open and interested in sharing their stories and hearing ours, without an agenda. In Miami, while some people were genuinely interested in telling their story, they were surrounded by very vocal people with a clear agenda.” That agenda—to condemn the Castro family and Cuba—led to some frustrating moments. One example: a woman tasked with translating a dissident’s life story instead interjected her own negative comments about Cuba. (Clearly she was unaware that several in the group spoke fluent Spanish.)

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"If students come away from this program realizing that there is no one truth to any situation, I will be happy," says Lani Phillips (kneeling, center). Media credit: Alexandra Doyle

Yet juxtaposing Cuba and Miami was instructive, especially when the group visited parallel monuments in both places. “I found those visits to be mind-blowing,” says Peloff. “We visited the Bay of Pigs landing and museum in Cuba, and then visited the Bay of Pigs museum in Miami. Where Cuba depicts the battle as a triumph over American imperialism, the Miami museum feels more like a gathering spot for the veterans of the battle and their families.” Similarly, memorials recalling the controversial custody battle of young Elian Gonzalez, who survived the boat trip from Cuba to the U.S. but whose mother did not, provide a vastly different spin on the event. “After seeing both places, I still wondered, ‘What version is true?’” says Doyle. “There are completely different narratives. I still don’t know.”

To Phillips, that uncertainly makes perfect sense. “Especially in the situation of Cuba, there are so many different points of view, so many different stories, that if you believe everything you’re told, you’ll end up more confused than when you started. If students come away from this program realizing that there is no one truth to any situation, I will be happy.”

Many thanks to Jane LeCuyer, whose generous donation enabled CHID to purchase Kindles for the Cuba-Miami trip. The technology allowed students to easily transport course readings from location to location and to reference materials while visiting field sites. CHID will continue to use the Kindles on future study abroad programs.