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Honors Students Study Cuban Culture and History in Havana

Cigars, Hemingway and the Narrative of Revolution Fascinate Young Travelers

Honors students visit National Literacy Museum in Havana, Cuba
Honors students tour the National Literacy Museum in Havana, Cuba.

02/03/2016
By Katharine Webster

Louise Wu, a freshman nursing major, joined an Honors College immersion program in Cuba over winter intersession hoping to learn more about the country’s universal health care system – and got so much more.

Coffee, for starters.

“It’s so much better than American coffee. I’m a coffee enthusiast – I really care about the quality of my coffee – and I tasted it and said, ‘Yes!’” Wu says. She bought four bags, duty-free, at the airport to bring home.

Other aspects of Cuban life weren’t as much to her liking. The Cuban education system curbs individual choice, with quotas set for how many students can enter each profession, she says. Five years before they finish school, students list their top 10 career choices. Then, depending on their exam scores, they get assigned to one.

“In Cuba, I felt this sense of limited freedom, almost artificial freedom. Yes, people do have options, but they have options within the parameters the government sets for them,” she says. 

In a blog post, she compared life in Cuba to making a Cuban sandwich: You can layer the ingredients in any order, but the end result tastes more or less the same – and although it’s good, it’s the only kind of sandwich you’re allowed to make. 

“We cannot add ingredients that are not provided for us,” she wrote.

Wu was one of 10 Honors College students who took part in the university’s first study abroad program in Cuba, led by first-year honors seminar instructor Julian Zabalbeascoa, who also runs the cultural immersion experience in Spain during the summer. 

The course fulfills an Honors College requirement, but sophomore Emma Morrison says she had other reasons for going. 

“Not a lot of people get a chance to go to Cuba. I thought I could brush up on my high school Spanish and learn about a place it’s not too easy to learn about,” she says. “As an engineering major, it’s nice to have a change of pace.”

The students stayed with families in Havana – the girls with one, the boys with another – and attended lectures every morning at the José Martí Studies Center. In the afternoons they took field trips to art and history museums, a tobacco farm and cigar factory, a health center, the national film school, Ernest Hemingway’s home and the fishing village that was the setting for his book “The Old Man and the Sea.” They also tried salsa dancing and cigars, ropa vieja and non-alcoholic mojitos. In their free time, they wandered around Old Havana. Now they’re writing blog posts and reflective essays, as well as completing creative projects or papers based on their experiences.

Zabalbeascoa says he’s wanted to take students to Cuba since traveling there himself in 2009. The students had the unique opportunity of hearing a single political narrative from the lecturers at the Martí Center – and comparing that to the stories they heard from ordinary Cubans and the version of Cuban history taught in American schools, he says.

“We were getting one particular narrative – and it’s one that most likely won’t be preached after the next few years,” given the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations, he says. 

Morrison found the contrast fascinating, especially after learning about the 1961 Cuban Literacy Campaign.

“After the revolution, they closed all the schools and colleges and sent the students and teachers out to the countryside to teach people how to read and write. In one year, they lowered the illiteracy rate to 4 percent,” Morrison says. “Most of what we hear about the revolution is that it was Communist and evil, but here was something really good that came out of it.”

Her homestay host, 73-year-old Carlos Peña Ávila, who’d had to leave school at age 8 to work, was among those who benefited. He told her he supported the revolution because now all children are entitled to a free education, Morrison says.

The cultural immersion program gave Morrison “a wider perspective on the world” and a greater interest in pursuing an international career. But her favorite memories are of seeing classic American cars – including two Chevy Bel Airs – and hanging out on the Malecón, the sea wall and promenade that’s a popular gathering place for Havana residents. 

As for Wu, she got a peek inside Cuba’s health-care system when the group visited a health center.

“Their health care system is very good in general, but they lack a lot of the facilities and technologies and advances that we have, and that really impacts their ability to treat people,” she says.