Students Challenge American Perceptions of Cuba


Hyacinth Parker

The group stands in the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, Cuba. Over the course of two weeks, the students traveled to several different parts of Cuba and chatted with residents.

Elizabeth Dobbins, News Editor

Many Americans think of images of rum, and beaches when they think of Cuba, but there is more to the story, according to Professor of Hispanic Studies Ana Cara. Cara and the eight students who traveled with her to Cuba over Winter Term hope to challenge common American perceptions of Cuba during “Imagining Havana,” a presentation next Monday in Craig Lecture Hall.

“The premise behind [the trip] was, because of the embargo, [that] the kind of information that reaches us is very filtered and usually very, well, iconic. We have pictures of Che [Guevara] and we have pictures of old cars,” Cara said. “Through the arts, primarily, although we did do some historical readings … we looked at how Havana and Cuba more generally have been represented both by people from the outside and by Cuban people themselves.”

However, Cara said the goals for the trip varied among the participants. In order to capture these many different views, all participants in the trip will present on a range of different topics, including the people the group met, socialism, the Cuba-U.S. relationship, the health care system, political art and Cuba as a symbol of revolution.

College sophomore Simon Regenold, who will present on tourism, said he was struck by the impact of tourism on Cuba and his own position as a tourist in the country.

“We are tourists, and we are trying to get to know people, but we need to think about our positions as Americans. But cultural exchange is [also] very important,” Regenold said.

Over the course of the two-week trip, the group stayed in the Martin Luther King Center in Havana; a guest house in Marianao, a workingclass neighborhood; and Varadero, a popular tourist area in Cuba. Regenold said he found the difference between Varadero and the less tourist-oriented places interesting.

“Tourism [is] definitely perverting the culture a little bit, and it’s not the greatest influence. People can make more money working tourist industries than working as a doctor,” Regenold said. “But also, the interesting thing is how the Cuban government has used its own agency to use tourism to subsidize the government itself. It charges people when [they] leave, and there are two currencies — one tourists use and one [local] people use.”

The trip, run through the Center for Global Education at Augsburg College, mixed sightseeing with conversations with residents. According to College sophomore Evelyn Wagaman, this integration allowed the students to develop, among many things, an idea of the popular opinion in Cuba on President Barack Obama’s re-establishment of diplomatic ties with the country on Dec. 17 of last year.

“We explored Cuba, Havana specifically, through the lens of art and music, but we also talked to a lot of people from Havana informally and we got to learn what they thought of the changes between [the] U.S. and Cuba,” Wagaman said.

Cara said the majority of the Cuban residents that she spoke with felt overwhelmingly positive about the U.S.-Cuba talks to lift the embargo.

“My favorite part was talking one-on-one with people, because one of the extraordinary things about the trip was that it coincided with Obama’s announcement of ending the embargo,” said Cara. “The talks were happening while we were there, so the whole city was very aware that this was happening, and people were very open about their opinions regarding this.”

Cuba, an officially communist country with a socialist economy, often experiences shortages on various goods such as TVs. Over the course of the trip, many students weighed the pros and cons of this system, including College sophomore Hyacinth Parker.

“It’s a very high-functioning, very poor country,” Parker said. “You can either see it as very poor and just leave it there, or you can see it as another world. It kind of is another world in some ways, just because it’s doing everything a lot differently than the rest of the world. … To say that that country doesn’t know what it’s doing and it’s a poor country is very simplistic.”

Parker said that one day the group was looking to buy about 20 dice for a dice game and asked one of their guides where to purchase them. The guide said they would be lucky to find two. However, while many goods are not abundant in Cuba, the government provides free access to medical care, a highly developed biotech industry and free education, resulting in a literacy rate higher than that of the U.S.

“They may only have one or two pairs of shoes as opposed to 10, but on the other hand, they have access to opportunities that people in the U.S. don’t universally have,” Cara said. “On the [one] hand, you can call it a poor country because everything is distributed among the populations, but on the other hand you can say, well, everyone has opportunities that otherwise they wouldn’t have. It turns your head around a little bit and makes you start reassessing and reading what you see in a slightly different manner [than] that of an American perspective.”

The opportunity to examine these perspectives and the idea for the trip came about when English for Speakers of Other Languages Instructor Amy Moniot sent Cara an email asking her to lead the Winter Term trip. Cara and Moniot worked with Assistant Dean of Studies Andrés Fernández and Associate Dean of Studies and Director of Programs for International Study Ellen Sayles to organize the logistics and educational goals of the trip.

During the planning process, Cara decided to develop a fall semester class to prepare students for the Winter Term trip. Although not all the students who went to Cuba took one of the two “Imagining Havana” courses offered last semester, the classes, one a full credit class taught in English and one single-module class taught in Spanish, offered a starting point for students to consider American perceptions of Havana.

Regenold said that visiting Cuba after taking the class helped him better understand Cuban culture and the limitations of the classroom.

“It some ways [my experience in Cuba] does match up [with the class], but in some ways this is a culture — how could I have thought I could possibly learn about it in a classroom?” Regenold said.

Cara said the College plans to offer another trip to Cuba in 2017 titled “Reimagining Havana.”

Interest in visiting Cuba is high at the College, with College President Marvin Krislov and a group of Oberlin alumni also planning to visit this year during the March alumni trip “Cuba: The Pearl of the Antilles.” Krislov said the response to the trip has been so overwhelming that a second alumni trip to Cuba is planned for this October.