University of Tampa group takes educational trip to Cuba, despite ongoing US trade embargo

02/23/12 Liz McKibbon
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Despite the ongoing U.S. embargo of Cuba, it’s now easier for educational trips to the island. A group of University of Tampa students and professors traveled to Cuba as part of a cultural studies class. They presented their experiences to a standing-room-only crowd at UT’s Vaughn Center Wednesday.

Seventeen students and three professors made the trip from east to west across Cuba, mirroring the path of many revolutionary movements they studied as part of the course. The students are from a variety of backgrounds. Some are native Spanish speakers and some had or have family originally from Cuba. One student, Eric Kahler has neither.

“All through out the city at night, there are festivals going on, little parties, people celebrating the music, celebrating the culture, being one with each other and bonding in their communities. And it was just something that as an outsider, I felt welcome, though, to be a part of. I felt brought in by the Cuban people and it was an experience I’ll never forget.”

Each student highlighted a different aspect of the trip. Nearly every student’s presentation reflected an appreciation of Cuba’s beauty. Kelly Fitzgerald touched on the economy and extreme poverty of the country. Tourism is one of the primary sources of income for many of the villagers. She explained even police accept under-the-table dollars from tourists.

“They gave them 3 kooks, which is equal to 3 dollars, basically, maybe a little more, and a bag of leftover food … and for that they got to go on a private tour of the capitol building at night.”

Chaperone professors Denis Rey and James Lopez introduced the history of the country and their estimations for its future. Rey believes the country will retain its autocratic structure.

“So, the future of Cuba, economically, I think it’s going to be prosperous. The situation, the human condition within Cuba, will improve economically. Where I am less optimistic, is what will happen politically.”

President Barack Obama renewed the US trade embargo on Cuba last September, extending the trade ban for another year. Professor Lopez said the embargo has been counterproductive and sees the best way to destabilize the Cuban regime is to open Cuba up, allowing the exchange of money and ideas. He said the embargo has allowed Cuban officials to blame someone else for problems within the country.

”When someone would criticize the Cuban government for example for eliminating access to the Internet and censoring the Internet, well it’s fairly easy to justify that censorship of the Internet, because they could say well we only have 300 megabytes to go around for everybody, so everybody can’t just be online doing whatever it is that they want. Where is if they had complete access, if everyone had complete access to the Internet—and there are other ways around it, there are satellite ways, and other—if everyone had full access to the Internet, then they would have to make a decision of do we censor or do we not censor. But in a way, the, sort of, embargo does their job for them.”

Last year President Obama eased travel restrictions to Cuba for educational and religious purposes. Lopez said University of Tampa is one of the first schools to take advantage of the opportunity. He says even though the country is still under a dictatorship, Cuba has seen slow economic liberalization since the transfer of power to Fidel Castro’s younger brother, Raúl. As recent as six months ago, Raúl began allowing the buying and selling of houses and cars in the country.

“It used to be for example, in Cuba, you had your house. And if you wanted to change house, you had to find someone else who was willing to switch with you and that was it. You had to switch. But now, Raul has liberalized it in such a way to allow people to own a second home and potentially rent that home and so that implies a tacit acceptance of the existence of private property, which didn’t exist before.”

The professors said they hope to repeat the trip with future student groups.

Short documentary film about the Cuban trip by student Christian Fernandez

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