Ninety miles south of – and in many ways, a world away from – the United States, Cuba has been largely a mystery to U.S. travelers for half a century. Last spring, a group of Bentley undergraduates got a rare firsthand look at the country, through a course led by Associate Professor of History Cyrus
During the embedded travel component of “Cuba: Past, Present, Future,” students met Cuban economists, political scientists, architects and artists, as well as ordinary citizens, to glean insights across the island nation, which has been under a U.S. trade embargo since 1960.
“The relationship between Cuba and the United States is so special,” says Veeser, who proposed the course shortly after the Obama administration loosened travel restrictions for American citizens, in January 2011. “I wanted students to get an idea of how interconnected Cuban history and U.S. history are.”
The country’s distinctive place on the world stage was another prompt for developing the course.
“In terms of being a remnant of the old socialist system, there’s basically just Cuba,” he observes. “It can be hard for students to understand that there was a certain appeal to communism, especially for people in less developed countries. Cuba is kind of an artifact of a previous era.”
A broad range of readings and class discussion readied students for the trip, which took place over spring break. The mix of business and arts and sciences majors also pursued research projects focused on tourism, health and medicine, culture and sports, democracy and development, or the economy.
During their weeklong stay, with help from local guides, the Bentley travelers spent daytime hours visiting noteworthy sites and meeting with government, academic and community leaders. Evenings offered time to talk more informally with locals in Havana and Cienfuegos, a smaller city southeast of the capital. Former Bentley professor Michael Eizenberg and his company, Educational Travel Alliance, handled arrangements for the group.
Course participant Morgan Diamant ’12 was struck by “the optimism and resilience that the Cuban people showed, despite difficult and often suppressive conditions. Even though they lack many freedoms that Americans take for granted, I saw a sincere, refreshing enjoyment for life.”
Whatever disaffection lingers between the countries’ respective governments, the Bentley group found most Cubans were “happy to meet Americans, curious about the United States, and pleased that Americans are able to visit now,” Veeser says.
“Cuba was by far the most interesting country I’ve ever been to, and likely will ever go to,” says Diamant, an Economics–Finance and Liberal Studies major who studied abroad three times during his student days. “Very few Americans can say they visited Castro-led Cuba.”
The course did not solve every mystery about the country, though.
“They were in a state of befuddlement about how this economic system could continue to function,” Veeser says of the Bentley undergraduates. “They tried to figure out what makes it work. I’m not sure they ever succeeded – but I’m not sure Cubans really understand it, either.”