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In Search of the Real Cuba

Professors warned the more than 40 students headed to Cuba for a two-week immersive educational trip this spring: Expect to hear “Chan Chan,” the iconic theme song from the movie “Buena Vista Social Club,” everywhere. And they did. From bands playing on street corners to restaurants with live music, the ubiquitous “Chan Chan” was inescapable.

It was a sign of tourism’s growing influence in Cuba, a socialist nation that has taken steps to partially embrace a global tourism economy in recent years. Anthropology professor Colleen Cohen has seen the shift. “In 2002, there was a lot of concern about the impact of tourism,” she says. “Today, they’re trying to make it work.”

Tourism, it turned out, proved a valuable lens for examining hard questions about Cuba. What is authentic and “real?” What is tourism industry “spin?” What is the Cuba that government officials choose to present as “Cuba”? How is a formerly isolated socialist nation engaging with the world?

Forty one students from across all class years and a wide range of majors prepared to answer such questions and more in the International Studies course “Cuban Transitions: Heritage, Ecotourism, and Cultural Transformations in the 21st Century.” The course was team-taught by Cohen with history professor Leslie Offutt and Hispanic and environmental studies professor Lisa Paravisini-Gebert.

Watch a video from the Cuban Transitions spring break trip.

Students arrived far more educated than your average tourist. Preparatory coursework included a look at Cuban history, tourism, agriculture, the environment, books, films, music, culture, and perspectives on sexuality. The result, Cohen says, was a group of students prepared to ask “penetrating, interesting questions” upon arrival in Cuba. “It’s a totally different experience than just being a tourist going to Cuba,” says Emily Lansdale ’14. “We’ve studied in depth what we’re seeing, and connecting it back to an article we’d read for class, or to a discussion we’d had.”

A feverish itinerary included time in Havana and Trinidad, a visit to the Varahicacos Ecological Preserve and other environmental and ecotourism sites, as well as trips to music schools, health organizations, dance studios, farms, and a delfinario that Paravisini-Gebert described as a depressing “Sea World Third World,” plus some down time for independent exploration. (Unfortunately, travel delays precluded the students from connecting with an alumnae/i travel group wrapping up its own time in Cuba.)

For many students, it was an eye-opening experience. “Our perceptions of Cuba very much changed,” says religion and art history double major Zan Schmidt ’12. Lansdale, who intends to major in International Studies or Latin American and Latino/a Studies, agrees. Though she’s traveled extensively throughout the Spanish-speaking world, she “didn’t expect Cuba to be so different from the rest of Latin America.”

A willingness to adjust their conceptions of Cuba proved important. “It was sometimes hard to reconcile what we learned in our U.S. classroom—or from the U.S. media and government—with the Cuban perspective on many issues,” explains Schmidt. “From a U.S. perspective, you hear that Cuba is communist with a totalitarian government. Cuba says it’s socialist. People supported the way their country was being run. Even if they wanted to see changes within the system, for them, the system was working.”

At the same time that students were receptive to new ideas and alternate perspectives, they were also vigilant, questioning the “story” being presented to them. Consider Schmidt. All students formed groups that worked on research projects while in Cuba. Schmidt’s group looked at art in public spaces. She had intended to look at graffiti and street art, but ended up focusing on billboards and large wall murals, which she classified as “politically-based government propaganda.” “Our tour guide controlled the information we saw,” she says. “He was an extremely intellectual individual; I felt like he ate textbooks. But he was employed by the government. Things were being spun in ways that were always positive.”

Offutt agrees: “We are approved visitors. We operate within a frame that has walls that are permeable. The tourist sector is a government sector, with guides trained by the Cuban government. That isn’t to say they aren’t extraordinarily proud of their nation, but it’s a position they’re expected to take. We and the students challenged the ways things were presented to us.”

But professors say the students at times were overly preoccupied with such issues. “No matter where you go as a tourist, tourism is tourism,” explains Paravisini-Gebert. “Tourist guides are trained to project a certain image of a country. Is it better or worse because it’s government-linked? It was interesting to see how remnants of Cold War policies and U.S. anti-Cuba propaganda filtered through students otherwise very open and eager to engage with everything Cuban. They were overly concerned with what they called propaganda: advertisements on the part of the state, a tourist guide with a particular view. If we went to Washington, DC, and got a tour of the White House and the Capitol, we would get the same ‘propaganda.’ Students were very concerned with open, objective truth.”

By the end of the trip, that message got across. Lansdale, whose research project focused on tourism’s influence on Cuban music, intends to return to Cuba in hopes of “delving in, in more authentic depth.” “You won’t understand being Cuban until you live on the Cuban peso,” she says, referring to a dual system of currency, one for tourists and another for local Cubans. She and her classmates found inspiring examples of organic agriculture, food security, environmental preservation, blossoming entrepreneurism, and shifting attitudes regarding sexuality (most notably, growing acceptance of same-sex relationships).

“The thing I wished for the students to take away from the trip was the three dimensionality of Cuba. We are led to understand Cuba as the enemy, to understand it as an unrelenting dictatorship where people are repressed and longing desperately to escape,” says Offutt. “I wanted very much to have them see Cuba from the inside out, and to understand the degree to which it is so much different than what we see filtered through a South Florida lens. If you can break down that barrier, and if you have time to be in Cuba with some knowledge under your belt, you can understand that it’s much more than black and white.”

And so much more than “Chan Chan.”

–Peter Bronski