[dropcap sid=”dropcap-1464369627″]L[/dropcap]ast March Barack Obama was the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years. Not long ago, his history-making, three-day visit—the culmination of the diplomatic opening announced by him and Cuban President Raúl Castro in 2014—would have been unthinkable. Is President Obama in the vanguard? Yes, but Baruch College was ahead of him. For several years, faculty and students have participated in a farsighted series of learning programs on this “forbidden island.”
Two years ago, Miguel Machado (’17) was a part-time student who worked 45 hours a week as a jewelry store manager. Feeling a kinship inspired by his Puerto Rican heritage, he applied to a journalism study abroad program in Cuba. When he returned, Machado quit his job, enrolled full time, and declared a double major in journalism and Spanish. He aspires to become a foreign correspondent in Latin America.
“My trip to Cuba changed everything—when I saw what people were able to live without, and the ingenuity they needed to survive each day, I felt incredibly fortunate,” says the budding journalist. “Their spirit gave me the confidence to bet on myself.”
Machado’s life-changing experience is far from unique on campus. Since 2012 more than 50 Baruch students have made transformational journeys to the Caribbean island as part of winter session courses that have focused on culture and society, journalism, and natural sciences. With the support of the George and Mildred Weissman School of Arts and Sciences and the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, a nonprofit organization fostering cultural exchange, the study abroad program has been able to thrive at a time when U.S. citizens have been largely restricted from Cuban travel.
The contrasts that visitors to Cuba witness are striking, notes Andrea Gabor, Bloomberg Professor of Business Journalism: “Parts of Havana look like a war zone, while others have shiny new restaurants.” She led the first student-reporting trip to Cuba in 2015.
“There has always been an American fascination with Cuba, the forbidden fruit,” says Katrin Hansing, associate professor of anthropology and sociology. Dr. Hansing created the Cuba program and brought the first group of Baruch students to Havana to study art, music, and culture. “The program really does justice to the idea that contact between peoples and cultures is much more important than isolation.” The social anthropologist arrived at Baruch with a profound expertise in Cuba and a CV that included the associate directorship of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami.
Her scholarly expertise was shared by other Baruch professors. According to Gary Hentzi, Weissman School associate dean, who also has traveled to Cuba, Baruch was in the fortunate position of having a unique group of faculty members who had been traveling to the island for research since the late nineties. Their contacts paved the way for later, formal student trips. “Our program is part of a broader global strategic initiative to increase Baruch’s connections abroad and break down cultural barriers,” explains Dr. Hentzi. “Sending educators and students to Cuba is a robust way to further that project.”
To visit Cuba is to experience the dichotomy of a nation caught between two worlds. In many areas, the city of Havana remains as Americans picture it, a land frozen in time, hampered by more than 50 years of trade embargoes with the U.S. Vintage fifties-era Chevys and Cadillacs line the streets, historic buildings fall apart from neglect, and store shelves are often barren of essential items. Other parts of Havana, however, resemble a vibrant metropolis.
Nowadays, large crowds can be seen huddled in the streets of Havana attempting to access the 35 or so existing WiFi hotspots, a shocking sight to U.S. students who take for granted cellphone reception and widespread internet.
After the collapse of its ally, the Soviet Union, in 1991, Cuba suffered an extended economic crisis. “Life was very grim,” says alumnus Max Berger (’68), senior founding partner at the law firm of Bernstein Litowitz & Grossman LLP and president of the Baruch College Fund. He traveled to Cuba in 2001 and again this February. “Every citizen received a ration card, which still exists today, that could be exchanged for commodities like rice and matches at local stores,” recalls Berger.
Forced to adapt, the communist state allowed entrepreneurs, known as cuentapropistas, to open small home-based businesses. Since 2010 small business licenses in Cuba have more than tripled.
“The island has changed dramatically over the past 20 years,” confirms Wayne Finke, professor of modern languages and comparative literature, who first visited Cuba in 1996 and has since traveled with students to explore literature and cinema. To illustrate his point, Dr. Finke cites as an example the paladares, small private restaurants. “When they first began, people were allowed to set up a maximum of 12 tables in their home, but were unable to get the food they needed for service. Streets had no garbage pails, because there was nothing to throw out. Today it is hard to find a hotel room.”
Since 2015 journalism students have been traveling to Havana to explore its emerging entrepreneurial sector and the surging cultural scene. They interview jazz musicians, young tech entrepreneurs, and historians and visit experimental farms and auto repair shops. Stevie Borrello (’16) says the most exciting part of the experience was the opportunity to report in the field.
“I had an opportunity that many journalists would love to have,” says the Macaulay Honors student, who reported on female entrepreneurs defying a culture of machismo to operate successful companies specializing in vintage car refurbishment and interior design services.
After each trip, the student journalists publish their articles as part of a multimedia project for the award-winning online student magazine Dollars & Sense. Last year Julissa Soriano (’16) reported on an underground service that distributes flash drives of American television shows at local copy centers. This year Jessica Nieberg (’16) and Jared Swedler (’16) explored one of the few synagogues in Cuba, writing about the tiny Jewish population in Havana that has kept its traditions alive despite challenging circumstances.
“Many of the stories came out of spur-of-the-moment activities,” says Journalism Professor Vera Haller, who led a Cuba study trip this January.
Since 2012 more than 50 Baruch students have made transformational journeys to Cuba.
Top: Students enjoy the city of Havana before traveling to the Peninsula de Zapata National Park to learn about marine and terrestrial ecology. Above left: In the field, Aleksandra Mikhaylova (’16) gets up close with a Cuban slider turtle (Trachemys decussate). Right: Journalism students interviewed Cuban entrepreneurs, whose home-based businesses reflect a new era of private enterprise in the socialist country. Among them was Paul Rodriguez (above), a licensed zapatero, or shoemaker. Through a translator, he told the students, “I don’t care about the politics. I just want to provide for my family.”
Despite progress, the government still exerts enormous control over business. In Cuba there is a list of 201 allowable private professions, from palm tree trimmer to computer programmer, yet such professionals as lawyers and architects are not legally allowed to operate independently—though that prohibition is often flouted.
Dr. Ted Henken, who holds a joint appointment in the Departments of Sociology and Anthropology and Black and Latino Studies and is co-author of Entrepreneurial Cuba: The Changing Policy Landscape, says these constraints cause many highly educated individuals to work as cab drivers, while others have to survive by bending or breaking the law. “Cuba is still easily the most un-free country in the Western Hemisphere,” he says. “While we have seen significant economic readjustments, there have been almost no political changes that will make the revolution more economically viable.”
In addition to the flourishing cultural and evolving business scene, Cuba has a fascinating natural history. This January Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Science David Gruber organized a trip to study marine and terrestrial ecology in the remote wetlands of the Peninsula de Zapata National Park. For two weeks, his students learned about biodiversity alongside Cuban scientists from the University of Havana, examining coral reefs, observing birds and lizards, and collecting samples of medicinal plants.
Says Dr. Gruber, “Cuba is unique because more than half of the terrestrial species are endemic—only found in Cuba—and the coral reefs remain virtually intact because of the low-intensity fishing and land use.”
For Aleksandra Mikhaylova (’16), this learning trip opened her eyes. “I look at the world a different way now,” she wrote in her class journal. “I want to pay attention to every insect, bird, reptile, and flower that crosses my path.” That awareness of detail, she says, will be helpful when she begins working in finance this summer.
As U.S.-Cuban relations evolve and more opportunities for travel open up, Dr. Hentzi hopes Baruch’s Cuba program will continue to grow. Plans for 2017 include another culture-and-society class and a course on Cuba’s efforts to modernize agriculture and fisheries and their impact on the environment.
“Cuba is an ideal place to study because of its rich culture in race, food, dance, and music, but also because it is significantly different in terms of the politics, economics, and language than what Americans are used to,” says Dr. Henken.
“That contrast is why students come away from the trip with a different understanding of the world,” he adds.
That was certainly the case for Erica Hanger (’13), whose class inspired her to live abroad in Australia and New Zealand and obtain travel agent certification. “I developed a cultural sensitivity working alongside Cuban students and artists,” explains Hanger, who works internationally as a hotel bar manager. “Surrounding myself with locals, I discovered laughter, compassion, kindness, and resilience—characteristics I integrate into my daily life.” She adds, “I am grateful to have been one of the first Baruch students to travel to Cuba. I hope many more students follow.”
— Carolyn Sayre