Photos and Story By Eliza Stokes, Guest Writer
From January 4th to 18th, 2014, I joined twelve fellow Warren Wilson students, Social Work professor Lucy Lawrence, Spanish professor Erin Montero, and farm manager Chase Hubbard on a short-term study-abroad trip to Cuba. Last semester, I accompanied these students and faculty in a four-credit course that focused on sustainable agriculture and social welfare in Cuba, and prepared us logistically and mentally for the experience of studying abroad in a group setting. For the course, we all had research topics¾ such as Cuban immigration, machismo and homosexuality, and social work education¾ that we studied during the on-campus portion of the course, and followed up with thoroughly upon our arrival.
Once in Cuba, we divided our time between Havana, the Western province of Pinar del Rio, and the Eastern Sancti Spiritus. Every day we woke up between 7 and 8 am to embark on our packed itinerary, which involved farm tours, visits to community projects geared toward aiding residents, group reflection and discussion, and “free” time to go out and explore our surroundings independently. The Cuba course was mind-bending, unique, motivating, and unforgettable¾ it placed me in cultural situations I never would have imagined and made me question many, if not all, of my preconceived notions of Cuba.
Cuba is, by nature, an incredibly complicated country. Since the advent of the Communist Revolution under Fidel Castro in 1959, Cuba has undergone vast political and economic paradigm shifts. In the Revolution’s ideological pursuit of equality for all people, Cubans now have universal healthcare, free education through PhD (depending on one’s social status), and guaranteed housing. However, the Cuban people also face enormous shortages, widespread hunger, and lack suffrage and freedom of speech. In addition, the United States has maintained an economic embargo against Cuba since 1960. This has crippled the Cuban economy by banning the importation of all American goods and deepening hostile relations between the two countries.
As our time progressed in Cuba, the inherently paradoxical nature of the country became more and more obvious: Cubans have rationed food, but they also ate alongside us at restaurants; many were angry with the US government’s policies, but they also felt closer to the US than any other country since an estimated 95% of Cubans have relatives here; and while our experience as tourists provided us with hotels, fancy meals, and spectacular trips unavailable to most Cubans, there was also a pervading sense that people were still thankful for our authentic interest in their day-to-day reality. Our tour guide told us on the first day that we could ask the same question of five Cubans and get five different answers. Not only did I find this to be true, but I also feel like I left Cuba even more baffled and intrigued by it than I was when I arrived. However, I think that achieving this level of increased curiosity¾ and even confusion¾ is actually a success. It means I have broken through the surface image of the island to reach a level of more complex thought, which I will be able to contemplate more deeply for a long time to come.
This is a crucial element of study abroad, and a big aspect of it that I want other Warren Wilson students to know: Study abroad is transformative. It pulled me out of the comfortable assumptions and socialization of my daily college life and granted me a brand new cultural outlook. As I grappled with the meaning of my new surroundings, and who I still was (and was not) in this new context, I discovered new strengths and weaknesses in myself as a traveler, group member, and global citizen.
Throughout the trip, I often wondered about the responsibility that accompanied my great privilege to be in Cuba. What do I owe to my community, both at Warren Wilson and in the United States at large, to have access to this experience? And as a global citizen, how can I continue to break down barriers and misconceptions between nations whose governments have diverged in such tumultuous ways, in order to illuminate our shared humanity beneath half a century of political tension?
I still don’t have a full answer to this question, but I know that sharing the insights I have gained about Cuba with people back home in the United States is crucial to clearing up this confusion. Above all, I want to emphasize three points. First, it is much easier to travel to Cuba as an American than many people believe¾ I was amazed by how many Americans we met in Cuba who had permission to travel there for educational, humanitarian, or religious purposes. Secondly, Cuban people do not, by and large, resent or hate Americans (although I was taught otherwise in grade school.) And finally, while Cuba has faced extreme political turmoil and crisis, it is still another place with many of the same joys and downfalls found anywhere else. While many Cubans face discouraging and harsh living conditions, I believe that some Cubans really are patriotic and proud to call their island home¾ and yes, this includes some of the people we in the United States would perceive as the most oppressed.
In more concrete terms, this trip has enormously increased my interest in my Latin American Studies concentration of the Global Studies major at Warren Wilson. I am even hoping to extend my class-based research on tourism in Cuba to a larger study of the effects of tourism in different Latin American countries for my capstone. Seeing the incredible work done by many of the community-benefit organizations we visited in Cuba has also intensified my interest in living a life dedicated to the service of others. I can think of no better way than this to put the lessons I have learned in Cuba, and the fundamental principles of Warren Wilson, into practice.
My experience in Cuba was eye opening, engaging, and incredible. I encourage all Warren Wilson students to pursue an opportunity to study abroad if they are able, and for the college to prioritize study abroad as a crucial element of our liberal arts education.
* This article expresses my personal experience and perspective on Cuba. It does not necessarily express the views of other students or faculty on the trip, or Warren Wilson’s study abroad program at large.