CAS Course Brings Students to Cuba

BU group among first to visit after travel restrictions eased

Vintage cars from the 1950s and 1960s are popular in Cuba, since Fidel Castro made it illegal for Cubans to import cars without government permission. Photo by Danica Drezner (CAS’17)

March 19, 2015
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For 13 BU students, this month’s spring break week offered an unforgettable experience: a chance to visit Cuba at a crucial moment in the island’s history. In December, President Obama announced the resumption of full diplomatic relations with the Communist country and the easing of travel restrictions, signaling a thawing in a decades-long political stalemate. (A trade embargo remains in place.)

The students enrolled in the one-credit College of Arts & Sciences course Experiencing Cuba: History, Culture, and Politics traveled to Cuba for a week, accompanied by several faculty members. There they went to lectures, took guided tours, and visited with a US diplomat who works in the area. They also had a chance to immerse themselves in Cuban culture, attending performances by flamenco dancers and local musicians and even taking in a baseball game. They will write a paper about their experience as a final part of the course.

Students on BU's Cuba Trip
Students enrolled in Experiencing Cuba: History, Culture, and Politics with Cuban flags. Photo by Amanda Thornton

Trip coleader John Thornton, a CAS professor of African American studies and of history and director of the African American Studies program, says the trip—three years in the planning—couldn’t have come at a better time, citing the fact that the two countries are in the midst of a historic moment. “The students were able to witness what we think will be the beginning of a set of transitions in Cuba,” he says. “We wanted them to see the contrast between how the ruling group in Cuba views this situation and then the way others view it.”

Since Fidel Castro’s ascension to power in 1959, more than a half-century ago, relations between the United States and Cuba had been marked by wariness and hostility. The United States–led Bay of Pigs debacle failed to oust Castro in 1961, and the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. In the intervening decades, it was nearly impossible for Americans to travel to Cuba: those who did go had to clear their trip with a government agency, apply for a special license, or go on a company-organized “people to people” exchange. Now, licenses are given for cases such as public performances and human rights work. (The BU group traveled on an educational mission.) With the restoration of diplomatic relations, Congress could eventually decide to lift all travel restrictions.

When Thornton and coleader Linda Heywood, a CAS professor of African American studies, began planning the course, they expected to have to contend with the onerous travel restrictions. The new deal between the two countries made travel much easier, Heywood says. Also leading the trip were Ana-María Reyes, a CAS assistant professor of Latin American art, and Amanda Thornton, an infectious diseases fellow at Boston Medical Center.

Art history major Jemma Douglas (CAS’16) says she jumped at the chance to see Cuba’s vibrant murals and contemporary sculptures in person. But she was taken aback by a something she saw on the way to her hotel.

Cuban billboard
A mural depicting revolutionary figure Che Guevara. Photo by Jemma Douglas (CAS’16)

“We were on the bus and saw a billboard with a famous Castro quote that translates to ‘The socialist revolution—of the working people, with the working people, and for the working people,’” she says. “It was a reminder that we would be visiting a country with socialist ideals.”

During their weeklong visit, the BU group was scheduled to spend one day meeting with Cuban college students. The students, says Thornton, turned out to be members of Cuba’s Young Communist League. “It was a structured, formal presentation by a group of highly disciplined youth who were kept in line by their leader, who controlled when they spoke and how they spoke, and wouldn’t let them speak in English, although one of them appeared to be fluent,” Thornton says. “They took the party line, which is that the US trade embargo is responsible for all the ills and all that ails Cuban society. There are a number of set things that the United States is blamed for, including a false claim that US doctors weaponized dengue fever.”

On another day, a local professor met with the group to talk about some of the infrastructure challenges facing Cuba; he estimated that only 15 percent of Cubans currently have internet access and expressed his belief that the current embargo prevented Cuba from growing. He hoped Cuba could soon begin to engage with American businesses, Heywood says, “because it will stimulate economic development.”

While poverty is rampant and free speech limited in the country, she says, medical care and education are free. “I asked Cubans what they would like to retain when Cuba changes, and those were the things they wanted to keep,” she says. “Cubans’ life expectancy is very high, and it’s like a first world country in terms of education and health.”

Heywood wanted BU students to visit Cuba in part so they could experience the country’s intermingled culture. “What surprised me when I visited Cuba for the first time was that when walking down the street, you see groups of family members or friends who are a range of colors,” she says. “In many American neighborhoods you don’t see that kind of mixture. Cubans stress their ability to be inclusive. I thought it would be a good idea for students to see a society where the races seem to intermingle in social ways.”

Paramount for the trip, though, was the rare opportunity it gave students to better understand a nation straddling the line between the past and future. Demetri Markantonis (CAS’16) saw the course as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Cuba before the many changes expected there as the United States relaxes banking and travel restrictions.

“With the changes that we foresee developing, the continuation of the embargo, and the Cuban people pursuing some modernization, Cuba will definitely change,” Markantonis says. “A lot of things that have been preserved culturally will probably fade away: you’ll get newer buildings, for instance. So I fear that loss, but since it will come with an improved standard of living, I want the best for them.”

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CAS Course Brings Students to Cuba

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There are 12 comments on CAS Course Brings Students to Cuba

  1. i commend BU for coming up with this ideas and programs, as a cuban american and a father of a BU graduate i am very proud of your institution, we need more of this programs to open dialogue and extinguish division. Our young students should have a world vision so that different cultures can be bridged. Thumbs up to you. Mannie

  2. It was disturbing, albeit not surprising to read this piece, for many of the comments of the BU travelers as well as the author reflect a narrow, somewhat superficial thinking. One student seems upset that there is a strong socialist thread there….another is mostly interested in getting businesses and economic development and American business rolling in Cuba. There is no mention of what may be one of the most important attributes a peoples or a country can have: sustainability practices. Cuba’s low-technology, organic food production system is among the most sustainable and healthiest in the world as recognized by the United Nations Environmental Program and countries around the world. This is not trivial, but is seen among many experts as a model that others can follow, for it is not dependent on massive fertilizer input, heavy machinery, and massive greenhouse gas emissions that big corporate systems such as those in the United States promote. The fact is Cuba is a recognized world leader not only in its health care and educational programs but perhaps most importantly in ways of making a healthier relationship with the planet we depend upon. There also appears to be selective history embedded in the piece. There is no mention that Cuban revolution rescued the country from a United States-supported, big corporate machine in the 1950’s as led by the then President Batista. Vice, exploitation and repression of citizens workers was the rule. The art, education, health care, environmental leadership and spirit of Cuba of today and recent years would not have been remotely possible in that pre-revolution regime. The sharing of ideas and observations works best when it is contextual and considers history, and is not just selective to meet one’s established ideology. Yes, some changes through the new relationship will be positive for sure but to represent that the American high consumer, fossil fuel addicted capitalist system as it currently stands is the the pathway for a viable future seems intellectually weak at best.

    1. Thanks for this reply. It is absolutely necessary to call out some of the reductive at best and chauvinistic at worst articles that BU today puts together sometimes.

      1. Cuba also has the MOST PRISTINE, natural, healthiest reef system on the planet. It currently has a natural magnificence that puts The Great Barrier Reef in Australia to shame.


        Because sustainability is a SURVIVAL strategy and Cuba has taken their survival seriously.

    2. I am upset to hear that the leaders and members of the trip spanning such a short period of time in Cuba would be labelled “narrow-minded” and “superficial” because of the quotes selected for a short piece. Certainly it is the author’s and magazine’s prerogative to choose what goes into an article and also for a teacher to choose what will be emphasized in a class, but an entire nation’s culture cannot be experienced in one week nor a week’s trip by 13 different people with different backgrounds neatly summed up by an article. While the article has a slant, I think to call it “disturbing” was unfair. Why not encourage open discussion on improvements in what the course covers or reflect on the parts of Cuba’s culture or history that were not touched upon in the article?

      1. Douglas Zook has provided details on Cuba’s current environmental & health policies. They would serve well as a basis for revising the focus of future BU student visits. Given his description of the US at the end of his comment, he also has a few ideas for revamping the study of the United States, too, along more analytical lines.

  3. Hi! I was surprised that there was no mention at all of another BU group, comparable in size, which likewise traveled to Cuba for a credit-based, academic course this and every January for the past several years. Seems like a pretty huge omission when we’re on the subject of BU academic-based travel to Cuba! Not that it’s a contest, but the trip by the group I’m referring to (a MET class within the Arts Administration master’s program) certainly preceded that of the CAS class’s trip. Thorough reporting should have led to inclusion of that group, which no doubt would have much value to add on this subject – especially because Dan Ranalli has been leading this trip since well before the travel embargo was lifted. Could be a really interesting angle!

  4. Did they learn about lack of freedom in cuba.? People can’t say what the want for fear of reprisal. free healthcare and education? for the ruling class they get the best of what is available but for the others basics .Ihave met Cuban doctors who were sent to Guatamala (and other parts of the world) to work with the poor and to promote Cuban propaganda. they told me the Cuban education and health care is not very good. they also said that there are more doctors than needed and many doctors work in the tourist industry. american college students are given a one sided view of cuba from my experience with working with my students

    1. In too many countries people don’t even have basic healthcare, so this actually confirms Cuba’s success in that area. And the anecdotal evidence from a few doctors isn’t exactly conclusive. Too many doctors? Now there’s a problem many countries would like to have ….

  5. Hopefully a reforming Cuba will retain its many positve achievements as described by Mr. Zook. This trip seem like a good learning experience. Unfortunately Cuba could become a go-to destination for slacker students, kind of like Prague (to some extent). The two concerns are related: let’s not wreck Cuba in the rush to privatize & corporatize it.

  6. How smart people still tell that in cuba education and medecin is free….nothing is free in cuba,people get pay nothing…please children belong to the tirano…ask a doctor how much he get payyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy…..10 15 dollar a month.

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