Studying in Cuba, With Minders

By David Abel  |  The Christian Science Monitor  |  7/7/1998

HAVANA - An entourage of sleek government cars rolled into the University of Havana. Swarms of beefy men wearing ear pieces and dark glasses trooped through campus. Then, someone shouted, "Fidel! Fidel!"

Moments later, Cat Linenberger,
a 20-year-old American college student studying in Havana, watched as Cuba's long-time leader, Fidel Castro, emerged from his black Mercedes Benz. Linenberger, on just her second Day in a country the United States considers a pariah state, was floored.

"I was so close I could have dropped my text book on his head," said Linenberger, a Latin American studies major at Tulane University in New Orleans. "People were going nuts for him. I couldn't believe it. This definitely wasn't in our syllabus."

A few years ago, Linenberger, who is writing her thesis on Castro, would have had to settle for history books and phone interviews to complete her research. The 36-year-old U.S. embargo, which prohibits Americans from traveling to Cuba without a license, long made studying in Cuba difficult.

But since U.S. law was amended in 1995 to allow for foreign exchange programs between the two countries, more than a dozen American universities have arranged for students to study in Cuba, according to the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. This year, about 100 Americans are studying on the island; Cuban students as of yet have not come to the United States.

For Americans, studying in Cuba affords an opportunity to live and learn in a communist country whose policies have long been at odds with Washington's. Some students find the government tries to shelter them from the country's grim realities or shape their view. Still, they're often thankful for the opportunity to see the good and the bad for themselves, instead of relying on the politically charged rhetoric in the United States.

Meredith Gaffney, a Tulane graduate student in public health who comes from New Jersey, found that "everything seemed coordinated for us" when a group of students were given a tour of the Havana Psychiatric Hospital. As soon as the students would approach a room, she recalled, patients and hospital personnel seemed to spring to action.

"It was kind of surreal," said Gaffney, 27, of Middletown. "They sugarcoated everything and overlooked all the problems. It would be interesting to do a surprise visit to see everything we weren't shown." But like other students, Gaffney said talking to ordinary Cubans helped complete the picture of life in Cuba.

"Being here is what it's all about," Gaffney said. "The people are very friendly and open up. You just have to talk to them. They tell you how it is."

Not everyone, though, is pleased about Americans studying in Cuba.

"These programs are not designed, in my view, to promote freedom and democracy in Cuba," said Remberto Perez, head of the New Jersey branch of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation. "They're designed to legitimize the Castro regime and undermine U.S. policy in Cuba."
Nick Robins, director of the Tulane program, acknowledged that "by nature, this kind of program is controversial."

"But this gives students a first-hand account," said Robins, whose program at Tulane was first offered in 1996 to five students and has grown to 33 students. "By being here they can make their own impressions and get beyond the rhetoric on both sides of the Florida Straits."

This summer, at least half a dozen universities are running study abroad programs in Cuba. They include the State University of New York at Buffalo, Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas. Other U.S. schools with programs in Cuba include Harvard University, whose students helped design the botanical gardens in the southern port city of Cienfuegos, and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, one of the few schools permitted to send students before the law was changed.

This year, Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx became the first medical school since 1960 to have a formal relationship in Cuba when several students arrived to attend seminars and tag along with Cuban doctors.

"We saw patients with them (primary care physicians). We got to go on house call visits. We basically did everything with them," said one of the students, Rajeev Bais, 26, of South Brunswick, who recently returned from Cuba after six weeks. "I took it pretty seriously, all of us took it pretty seriously, because we were representing the United States."

In New Jersey, no major university has a study abroad program in Cuba. But this year, two students from Princeton University have been studying in Cuba through the SUNY Buffalo program.

At Rutgers University, Luis Martinez-Fernandez, an expert on Cuba, said he would like Rutgers students to one day have the opportunity to study in Cuba. For the time being, though, Rutgers maintains a relationship with Cuban academia by inviting Cuban professors to the Puerto Rican and Hispanic Caribbean Studies Department in New Brunswick, said Martinez-Fernandez, chairman of the department.

"Even though the U.S. and Cuban governments have had strained relations over the last 40 years, scholars from both societies have interacted, collaborated, have met in congresses in various parts of the world," said Martinez-Fernandez, who has traveled to Cuba numerous times to do research. "So over the years these kinds of relations and friendships really have developed."

For American students, living and studying in Cuba is not always easy. In the case of Diane Steffan, 25, a graduate student in bilingual education at SUNY Buffalo, her Cuban heritage almost prevented her from going. Steffan's Cuban-born mother was dead set against her daughter spending dollars in a country that forced her out 30 years ago.

"She was like, 'No way,'" said Steffan, while touring a one-time aristocratic street adorned with rows of unpainted columns for a class called "Havana: City, Space and Culture." "Then she eased up. And eventually she got excited for me to bring back memories."

Once here, students have run across a variety of obstacles. Rassaan Parris, 23, a recent SUNY Buffalo graduate, said the police Kept stopping him; he's black and authorities mistook him for a Cuban harassing foreigners. Mike Milch, 20, a politics major at New York University, had his bike stolen on his second day in Havana.

Buffalo students say they are often accompanied around the capital and joined in class by a man who calls himself Doug. They call him "the spy." The chummy Interior Ministry official keeps tabs on what students ask and what the professor says.

"It's just a way for them to keep an eye on us," said Jose Buscaglia, the Buffalo professor teaching classes on architecture and history to 33 students. "I guess they think some of the students might be working for the CIA."

Buscaglia said the U.S. government counters the Cubans by strongly suggesting, if not obliging, the students to attend a lecture at the U.S Interests Section, the Havana office that acts in place of an embassy since diplomatic relations were broken in 1961.

Despite all the political wrangling, American students in Cuba were overall pleased by the experience.

"At home everyone has a programmed reaction," said Nicolle Ugarriza, 26, a first-generation Cuban-American from Miami Beach. "But underneath that there is a tremendous curiosity. I've heard about Cuba forever. So it was time for me to experience it myself."

Copyright, The Christian Science Monitor