During Winter Break 2016, I traveled to Havana, Cuba on an Immersion Project with the Gettysburg College Center for Public Service. The ten-day trip focused on healthcare and food access, and allowed ten Gettysburg students from a range of diverse majors and programs to explore Cuban politics, policy, and culture.
On a personal level, going to Cuba was a dream of mine that had been in the making for over two years. During my sophomore year (way back in 2013), I looked into study abroad programs in Cuba- however, due to the restricted nature of the relationship between the United States and Cuba, it seemed like an impossible option. As time passed, and the Obama administration announced their intention to improve relations with Cuba, I leapt at the chance to study in the country with CPS.
As a Political Science major and Peace and Justice Studies minor, traveling to Cuba appealed to many of my academic interests – international relations, public policy, and human rights in particular. Touring the Museo de la Revolution (Museum of the Revolution), speaking with women’s and LGBTQ rights activists, and walking along the beach at the site of the Bay of Pigs invasion allowed me to experience Cuban history firsthand.
The political history of Cuba’s has been a turbulent one beginning with the colonization of the country by the Spanish in the 1400s. The military occupation by the US in the early 1900s, the Cuban Revolution, and Fidel Castro’s rise to power in the 50’s led to a partnership with the Soviet Union, which ended abruptly with the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Cuba was then forced to fend for itself in a competitive global market that it wasn’t prepared to enter. And now, as the Obama Administration attempts to recover a relationship with the country, Cuba may again undergo a period of transition.
Changes are already visible – on certain street corners in Havana, dozens of Cubans are immersed in their laptop and cellphone screens, taking full advantage of the few WIFI hotspots that the government has established. Elements of American pop culture are gaining ground thanks to online streaming sites that provide downloads of everything from Game of Thrones to Justin Bieber episodes. Havana itself is a city of contrast, as locals cruise down the Malecon blasting reggaetón from the altered stereo systems of 1950’s Fords.
Our time in Cuba felt almost surreal. Even now, several months after we’ve returned to the US and Gettysburg, I sometimes wonder if it was all just a dream. There was a certain sense of transcendency that I think we all experienced during our trip – that Americans, talking and living with Cubans, had so much to share and so little to fear from one another. Without prejudice, contempt, or gamesmanship attached to the relationship between our two governments, we sought honesty and understanding from one another.
Perhaps the hardest thing about leaving Havana was not knowing when or if we will ever be able to come back. Seeing firsthand the effects of the blockade was more eye-opening than any of us expected it to be. Will the warmth and vitality of Cuban culture suffer if a close relationship with the US is rebuilt, or will it continue to flourish? Will the face of Cuban politics and policy change, or will socialism outlast the Castro’s?
We were lucky enough to experience Cuba as it sits on the cusp of a potentially dramatic transformation – for better or for worse. The trip broadened my understanding of the world in ways that only an experiential learning program could. In ways that only CPS could. In ways that only Gettysburg College could.
Gracias, Cuba, para todo. Con suerte voy a ver otra vez.