Cuba's digital destination
by Georgia Schrubbe
“How many Americans do you know that have gone to Spain or Italy or France?” Chrissy Hefron, sophomore geology major at the College of Charleston, asks. “Now think how many you know that have gone to Cuba—for me, that number was zero.” Hefron decided to be the first member of her family to travel to Cuba, spending three months there as part of CofC’s annual La Habana study abroad trip.
“For me, Cuba seemed like the ultimate adventure. Traveling inside one of the last hard-line communist countries during a period in history in which Fidel Castro is still alive? I had no idea what I was getting into, and therefore I was immediately attracted to the idea and simultaneously terrified,” Hefron said.
Long gone are the days of our grandparents, when Havana was a honeymoon hotspot and Americans were able to travel to the Las Vegas of the Caribbean for a quick pleasure trip. Now, traveling to Cuba is not just a simple matter of buying a plane ticket and jetting off the coast of Florida. Travel to Cuba must be authorized by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, usually for educational, journalistic, or religious purposes, and each traveler is only allowed to spend a certain amount of money in Cuba per diem.
(Note: As of January 2015, the Obama administration put all 12 categories of travel under a general license, meaning that visitors no longer have to ask OFAC for permission before going, and there is no specific dollar limit on authorized expenses. In addition, travelers are authorized to acquire in Cuba merchandise with a value up to $400 per person, of which no more than $100 may be alcohol or tobacco products. On March 16, 2016, solo travel has been permitted by President Obama.)
Maybe these difficulties, and the mystery and misinformation that Cuba is shrouded in, is why students participating in the CofC study abroad program jump at the chance to spend time there learning some of the ins-and-outs of Havana life.
Despite the growing interconnectedness of today’s society, few Americans know much about Cuba. Hefron bemoans most Americans lack of education about their neighbor in the Western Hemisphere and considers herself lucky to have been exposed to so much in a short amount of time.
“[I knew] that Fidel controlled it, they had communism and cigars, and about the Cuban missile crisis,” Hefron said, “So I knew nothing.”
The CofC program educates students about all facets of life in Cuba, from the history of the Cuban Revolution and its aftermath to how to successfully navigate Cuban food markets and butcher stands.
The program is the brainchild of CofC’s Dr. Douglas Friedman, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies and International Studies programs, and Dr. Humberto Miranda, a researcher at Havana’s Institute of Philosophy. The two are the “principals” of the program and also fast friends, successfully running the program without interruption since 2000.]
After President Bush passed legislation in 2004 making travel to Cuba for educational programs more difficult, many universities’ Cuba programs were discontinued, but Miranda and Friedman managed to keep theirs going, earning CofC’s status as one of a handful of Cuba study-abroad programs in the United States for several years.
The Cuba program is a reason that some students choose the College over other universities. Class of 2012 graduate Ross Kressel rejected acceptances to several universities, including the University of Massachusetts and Ohio’s Miami University, to study political science at CofC and have the opportunity to spend a semester in Cuba.
“I wanted to go to Cuba before I even set foot on the campus,” Kressel said. “It is somewhere that nobody else I really knew could go, and it was a really unique place to be able to study politics.”
Besides getting an up-close look at a government that the United States has fiercely embargoed for over 50 years, Kressel also had a chance to indulge his passion for baseball.
“Being able to see where some of my favorite players have come from was cool to me,” Kressel said.
He was able to see Havana’s Industriales team play in their home stadium, where instead of an organ player plunking “Take me out to the ball game,” there was an eight-piece rumba group drumming out beats that sounded more like they were accompanying a run through the jungle than of around bases.
The program allowed Kressel and Hefron and the 10 other students on this year’s trip to swim in the Bay of Pigs, follow in the footsteps of famous revolutionaries but also face the realities of living in a country where shortages of supplies are common and the people joke that their three biggest problems are “breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Aplatanar is a word used in Cuba that means to make like a plantain and put down roots. Hefron recalls one of the nights that she felt most aplatanada and at home in Cuba, an evening where the entire group (plus new Cuban friends) went to one of their favorite spots to hear Cuban trovador Frank Delgado play for the umpteenth time.
“How safe and in love we felt—with the people, the scent, the music and the entire Habana life with all its frustrations and hardships,” Hefron said.
The College of Charleston program is firmly aplatanado in Cuba, and Cuba has become firmly fixed in the hearts of all students who have an opportunity to study there.
Georgia Schrubbe is a senior at the College of Charleston and fell in love with Cuba after studying in Havana. She writes a brilliant blog, Jamming with GA.