When you go to another country to study abroad, you are exposed to a different perspective. When you study abroad in Cuba, you enter a different world, where the archaic and the modern inhabit the same space.
Imagine streets filled with people dressed in modern fashions, driving vibrant cars from the fifties or riding horse-drawn carriages to work. Imagine the street’s buildings as fifties-era apartments and homes that are crumbling with decades’ worth of wear and tear. That’s Cuba.
Our study abroad group under Dr. Johanna Alberich was in Cuba to learn about the language, culture and history of the island. We worked with an international school called Estudio Sampere, located in Havana’s Barrio Vibora.
Our trip was from May 19 to May 28, with our group stopping at cities throughout the western and central parts of the island. As such, it was my goal to learn as much as I could each day.
This desire to learn about how Cuba’s society works stemmed from a more personal place. Being from Puerto Rico, I wanted to see how total separation from the United States looked like compared to my homeland’s existence as an American commonwealth.
The first two days in Havana were uneventful, as we mostly toured through the neighborhood and Old Havana, learning more about the Spanish-era buildings and some of the buildings frequented by Americans before the revolution.
To be honest, Old Havana is an architectural marvel, with so many of the buildings carrying a rich history from before the country’s independence all the way to the present day. One can wander for hours through crowded streets and find the places where people like Ernest Hemingway and Frank Sinatra frequented during their heyday.
On May 22, we had our first lecture on Cuban history, which was probably when the real learning began.
During the lecture, we discussed how things were before Fidel Castro took over versus how things are in Cuba today. Learning about how awful the conditions were for most of the people before the revolution and how Castro’s reforms improved the average quality of life made me start to question my contempt for the late dictator.
I left that lecture thinking about if Cuba’s communist system could work if the American embargo wasn’t in place. The embargo forces Cubans to trade with extremely distant countries instead of the United States, and in the past, other countries were punished by the United States for doing business in Cuba (according to the professors).
I thought of my own homeland and how we have so many problems and depend on the United States for many things. While Puerto Rico is much more developed than Cuba, Cubans can take pride in the fact that they are the ones who brought their country as far as it has come.
I kept these thoughts in my mind as we began our tour through the island the following day. During this part of the trip, I found that I learned more in conversations I had with Cubans outside of the tours.
Our first stop was Cienfuegos, a more modern city known for its theater and boulevard, which features buildings constructed in the French Neoclassical style. I would say that you could probably compare Cienfuegos to parts of New Orleans in this regard.
Our walking tour in Cienfuegos began on the boulevard to see the statue of the legendary Benny Moreno, the crowded promenade and Jose Martí Park, which holds the city’s casa de cultura (a type of communal arts center) and the city’s old theater.
During our tour of the Teatro Tomás Terry (Tomas Terry Theater), I asked our tour guide if the arts are supported by the government, to which he answered yes. Professional artists and performers have their work subsidized to make art available to public at large since access to the arts is considered to be a human right in Cuba.
By this point, my negative preconceptions of the Cuban government were softening, but in Trinidad, the cracks in the façade began to appear.
Trinidad — a city much like my hometown in Puerto Rico, Comerio —sports the most well-preserved historic district in all of Cuba. Many of the brightly colored buildings date back to the colonial era, and the streets are bumpy paths constructed from uneven cobblestones.
We were there for roughly two days to visit the nearby Playa Ancón and local cultural spots like the museums and a bar named La Canchánchara, named after Trinidad’s famous drink.
There are several street markets in the city, and it was at one of these where I held a conversation with a random vendor about Puerto Rico and Cuba’s similarities. I clumsily let slip that I studied journalism as well as Spanish at Troy, and the kindly vendor proceeded to tell me to be careful because journalists were known to be detained by the government.
Well, I suppose it goes without saying that incident brought me back to reality, and I began to question everything again instead of accepting it with face value.
I also began to realize how hard it was to get the full perspective on Cuban affairs. The newspapers I purchased and examined did not seem to have conflicting sides like we would see in America, and at other times, there were blatant gaps in information concerning government affairs. The lack of easy access to the Internet also kept me from fact-checking the stories told to us.
After Trinidad, we were headed to Santa Clara, an important site of many battles and the final resting place of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, but first, we stopped at an old villa in the Valle de Ingenios (Valley of Sugarcane Refineries).
From the top of the villa’s tower, one can truly appreciate the natural beauty of Cuba. As the morning sun rises, one can see the golden sunlight trickle into the valley past the mountains onto vast fields filled with bright green sugarcane.
We left that tower to go see a tobacco factory in Santa Clara, which was full of life and music. Cuban cigars are made from tobacco by hand, so the main room was filled with people rolling them while a DJ entertained the workers with music. In fact, some of the workers tried dancing with our group.
Across the street was a “casa particular,” a store where you can buy tobacco and rum as well as other things. Here I asked the cashier if the only stores with real cigars were government-owned. She said yes and explained that street vendors who sell cigars are really selling banana leaves stuffed with garbage or leftover plant matter.
The morning after, we visited the mausoleum of Che Guevara in Santa Clara’s Revolution Square, where we were forbidden to speak or take photos. After seeing his tomb and passing through a museum dedicated to him, we headed back to Havana.
On the day of our departure, we had a final discussion session where we talked about anything ranging from healthcare to the structure of Cuba’s government. It was extremely informative, although some parts seemed a bit like propaganda.
After that, one of the teachers, Julian, sang some Cuban folks songs to us. In return, I shared parts of Puerto Rican folk songs that I knew.
We got back to Tampa on the evening of that Sunday and parted ways once we got to the pickup section.
So, all in all, what did I learn? I learned that people, in the face of obstacles, can adapt and evolve to improve their lives with limited resources. This is clear in how Cuba has survived in spite of the embargo. I learned to question everything that someone tells me, which will benefit me in my future career as a journalist. I also learned to appreciate the luxuries and freedoms that we have in the States. Finally, I learned about how friendly and hospitable the Cuban people are. I made many good connections while there that I will probably carry with me for the rest of my life.