Honors in Havana
It could hardly be a more interesting time to be in Cuba— ask any of the Ogden Honors students who just returned from three weeks in Havana with Honors in Cuba, the College’s annual summer study abroad program. Led by Ogden Honors Academic Advisor Jeremy Joiner and LSU Assistant Professor of History Devyn Benson, not only did the 2015 Honors in Cuba cohort explore the country, visit historical sites, and experience Cuban art, music, and dance—they also had the chance to experience, first-hand, the ways in which rapidly changing U.S.-Cuban relations will affect Cubans and Cuban society.
“When you talked to people, there was this sense of excitement and hope,” said program participant and Ogden Honors junior Will Myers. “They know that hopefully within the next five to ten years, they could have a completely different economy.”
Ogden Honors College Dean Jonathan Earle said the Honors in Cuba program will provide a template for additional study abroad opportunities in the College. “It’s a great formula: combine fascinating locations with top faculty, and add our wonderful students. I’m so glad these young people got a chance to see one of our neighbor nation’s in the midst of rapid, mind-blowing change.”
“We passed the U.S. Special Interest building,” Myers continued, “and while we were there, President Obama announced that they were converting it back into an embassy. That’s happened since we’ve returned—it’s now officially the U.S. Embassy to Cuba. So we were probably some of the last Americans to see it when it was not an embassy, going back to before the Revolution.”
Honors in Cuba is hosted in Havana by the Juan Marinello Institute, a Cuban center for cultural research. While in Cuba, students took two courses for LSU credit at the Institute, HIST 2195: History of Cuba and HNRS 2020: Contemporary Cuban Culture and Society, with guest lectures from Cuban scholars. “Dr. Benson covered everything from the Cuban political and historical system, to a brief history of Cuban art and cinema, to LGBTQ and gender and race relations in Cuba,” said program participant and Ogden Honors junior Clarissa Bruns. “She helped us to understand how our history in America affected our Cuban neighbors.”
Afternoons were reserved for visits to historical sites, museums and arts projects, and for meetings with community groups, such as Proyecto Espiral, a grassroots environmental education program. In the evenings, students were encouraged to explore Havana on their own.
“In Havana, the sea wall is called the malecón, and at night, you go out to the malecón. There’s maybe a three mile stretch where there’s all young people of Havana go. So you go out there, and you sit on the sea wall, and you just hang out. It was really great because we because we got to meet Cuban people and really talk to them and kind of mix in with their culture, which was incredible,” Myers said.
“The students were able to see Cuba for the country it actually is, rather than relying on what is portrayed in the media,” trip co-leader Jeremy Joiner said. “They were able to talk to Cubans and learn about their everyday lives and some of the hardships Cubans face day-to-day. Interactions like these then make you think about life in your home country, and make you examine the differences—without using value judgment.”
On weekends, students went on excursions throughout the country, to locations such as Matanzas, a town that has produced so many well-known artists, poets, and musicians that it is referred to as the “Athens of Cuba,” and Viñales, a lush agricultural center said to be Fidel Castro’s favorite place in Cuba.
“My favorite trip we took outside of Havana was probably Viñales,” recalled Bruns. “When I think of a landscape where dinosaurs might have lived, I imagine Viñales. Enormous rounded hills, sheer cliffs blanketed in vibrant greenery—it was like seeing a landscape completely untouched by man.”
The conclusion of the program’s coursework is a final group research project that explores an aspect of Cuban society or culture. “For our final project, we studied the Cubans’ limited access to food during the Special Period—the time after the Soviet collapse and complete crumbling of the Cuban economy in the 90s—and its effects on the gender makeup of who performed domestic duties in the Cuban household,” said Bruns. “We examined whether or not there was a perceivable shift in the sharing of these responsibilities.” Other students investigated how the national healthcare system works, and how Cubans participate in local government.
Honors students agreed that their time in Cuba has had a profound impact on their personal perspectives and attitudes. “My view of the United States as a country—how our foreign policy works, how participate in the political process, even how we handle healthcare—has changed dramatically,” Myers noted. “Now I’m looking at everything with a more skeptical eye. And we have a duty to do that—to make sure that we look at our government and say, ‘Are you really doing what you say you’re doing? Are you really doing the right thing?’”
“Cubans are inventive and creative, and have learned to take recycling and reusing to a whole new level—out of necessity,” Bruns said. “Property, possessions, and access are largely taken for granted in America. Cuba made me notice how materialistic and political American society is—and it made me realize how the American history we are taught in school is but one version of the past.”
“Being in Cuba forced me to lower my inhibitions and changed how I interact with people—and with myself,” she continued. “Before I might have been shy about approaching someone to learn about them, or discuss their experiences. Now I know that if you don’t ask, you don’t learn, literally.”
“Plus,” Bruns concluded, “I have a newfound love of salsa dancing.”