http://www.chapelhillnews.com | By JEREMY BORDEN, CORRESPONDENT
For many, the place exists only in Hollywood movies: old Chevys and charming shops, screeching trumpets and tropical breezes.
For the few Americans who get to go there, Havana, Cuba, can be an enchanting place with a warm and gracious people. Even though it is only 90 miles from Key West, however, the island nation may as well be on the other side of the world due to U.S. travel and trade restrictions, known as the embargo. The Cold War holdover persists even as the United States pursues relations with China and other communist countries.
But every spring a group of University of North Carolina students trades dorm life for a chance to bring a few of those stories back to North Carolina.
Due to Bush administration restrictions that took effect in 2004, such college programs now have a higher bar to meet. They must be at least 10 weeks long, among other requirements, and established programs get preference.
As a result, UNC is one of the few American schools to offer a program in Havana. American University in Washington, D.C., and Sarah Lawrence College in New York are the others. Once in Havana, students travel independently, brush up on their Spanish, and become immersed—through classes and living—in the enigma of Cuba.
Then they come back and tell stories.
They talk about the waterfront, or el malecon, and about Celina—the woman who makes piping hot pizza and sends it down from her fourth-story apartment window on a pulley. They talk about the music and vibrancy of the Cuban people.
But there’s another side: Students describe the poverty they saw, run-down buildings and people who will say only in private what they think about Fidel Castro, the communist dictator since 1959.
Still, many said there is more good than bad.
“Cuba has things with their system that we certainly don’t have,” said Cody Rifkin, a first-year law student at UNC who went on the program as an undergraduate in 2004.
“The universal health care, free education through college, any professional school as well ... In the U.S., yes we have free press and a lot of freedoms that the Cubans don’t, but at what cost?” Rifkin said.
“There’s a give and take in any political system. That’s the way I look at Cuba.”
Louis Perez, a UNC history professor, jumpstarted UNC’s study abroad program, using his contacts from research on 20th century Cuban history to get the ball rolling.
“The policies and politics of this government is a function of the larger environment which it exists,” Perez said. “Cubans have lived almost 50 years (near) a country whose government’s explicit purpose is to overthrow the Cuban government.”
Still, the Bush administration and others point to a government that quashes political dissent and tightly controls all information. Fair elections have not taken place in Cuba since Castro’s rise, and, in public, Cubans keep their politics to themselves in fear they might be persecuted.
Amnesty International, in a March 2005 report, told of 75 Cubans imprisoned for political reasons. The Cuban government has charged them with crimes, such as “publishing articles or giving interviews, in U.S.-funded or other media, said to be critical of economic, social or human rights matters in Cuba,” among other offenses, according to the report.
Richard Cole, the recently retired dean of UNC’s journalism school, took about a dozen groups of students to Havana during spring breaks in the 1990s. He’s seen firsthand Castro’s ruthlessness.
“You don’t criticize the goals of the party,” Cole said. “(Castro) controls the army, he has ... enforcers, there are people in each neighborhood who listen to what’s going on and if someone is critical of Castro they report it.”
But Cole places part of the blame on the embargo.
“I think the embargo’s crazy,” he said. “If we would drop the embargo, plane-loads of blue-haired ladies from Minnesota would go visit. The embargo, in my opinion, is what’s keeping Castro in power,” because it keeps Cubans mired in poverty and the U.S. as the reason, Cole said.
Former students of UNC’s study abroad program in Cuba come back thinking along the same lines—that the embargo is foolish and outdated.
“People think Cubans are clamoring at the gates to get out, and no one wants to be there,” said Sarah Hench, who went in 2004. “That’s absolutely untrue.”
But she said that while the program gave her insight into some of the bigger issues, it was the small things she remembers most.
Her lasting image of Cuba: The blocks and blocks of people lined up for cheap ice cream in downtown Havana. It wasn’t what she expected from Castro’s harshly portrayed regime.
“They make a lot of social activities really affordable for lots of people. At the Coppelia - the ice cream is five scoops of ice cream for 28 cents.”
“I learned so much while I was there, it was definitely one of the best decisions I’ve made.”
An e-mail from Cuba
Following is an e-mail from Matt Saldana, a UNC senior who arrived in Cuba on Jan. 24.
UNC has us set up at a really nice resedencia, in a beautiful part of town, El Vedado. We’re walking distance from the University, the malecon (waterfront), and the Copellia ice cream palace (where everyone in Havana comes to wait in long lines and eat really cheap ice cream). We’re just a short taxi ride (in a ‘50s Chevy, for less than fifty cents) to Habana Vieja, the gorgeous old part of town.
We’ve been received very well—everyone on the street wants to know where we’re from, and some fellow Cuban students have already befriended us and taken us to baseball games, traditional dance performances, and parties in their kitchens. We feel very welcomed, and almost at home in our neighborhood. We are in Cuba during a time of increased political tension—there was an Anti-Imperialist March of 1.4 million the day we arrived—but I have never felt unsafe or unwanted here. Cubans can distinguish, better than almost anyone else I’ve met, the politics and people of our country.
It would be nice to assimilate as much as possible. I’ve already been mistaken for being Spanish-the last step, I suppose, is to be mistaken for a Cuban. We’re a very small group of American students studying in the country, though, and we may have to remain content as a novelty. Either way, we’ve already made some lasting connections, and hope to continue doing so throughout the semester. We’ve benefited a lot from the UNC program having already been established. Some of our friends here are the same as the ones the last group made. We’ve only been here one week, so we have a lot to learn. I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the country.