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Dispatches from Cuba: Part I

LSU Honors leads summer study abroad trip to Cuba
Dispatches from Cuba: Part I

Image courtesy of flippinyank on Flickr

Every summer, the LSU Honors College offers its students a summer study abroad program. The program has taken Honors students to South Africa and China, and this year, to Cuba. The Honors in Cuba program arrived in Havana on Sunday, June 1 and has been following a jam-packed itinerary ever since.

Students participating in the program began with three days of intensive instruction on LSU’s campus. Assistant Professor of History Devyn Benson, who, along with Honors College Academic Advisor Jeremy Joiner, is leading the trip, acquainted students with Cuban history. Students also learned what to expect while traveling in Cuba; for example, visitors to Cuba will find that access to mobile networks and internet is either cost-prohibitive or simply unavailable.

After landing at Jose Marti International Airport on June 1st and settling into their residences in Havana, our travellers had their first in-Cuba course meeting. The program’s seminar-style classes congregate at 9AM each morning in the Juan Marinello Cuban Research Institute, the trip’s co-sponsor with LSU. Classes delve further into Cuban history—students have thus far covered the Cuban Wars of Independence and the Cuban Revolution—and Cuban culture and society. Guest lecturers from the Juan Marinello Institute lead daily class discussions on topics such as Cuban politics, race relations, and LGBT rights.

Afternoons are for local outings. On their first day, students were treated to a tour of La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square). Old Havana consists of almost 1,000 buildings of historic importance spanning five centuries and is one of the largest, primarily unaltered colonial complexes in the Americas. Revolution Square has been the administrative and political center of Cuba since the early 1950s. Vast and austere, it is ringed by government buildings and is where former President Fidel Castro and other political figures address the Cuban public.

Other trips have taken students to the US Interests Section—the de facto US embassy to Cuba, since the two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations—and to Regla, a port town across the harbor from Havana. Freed slaves settled in Regla in the 19th century, and the town’s Afro-Cuban heritage is unique in Cuba. Students toured local churches and museums, which display idiosyncratic religious artifacts such as black Madonnas and orishas, spirits of the Santeria religion.

Students have also visited local community organization, such as Proyecto Communitario Ecológico Espiral, a grassroots environmental project, and Cintio Vitier, an arts workshop (named for the Cuban poet and essayists) that provides painting, drama, music and dance classes to children and teenagers. (Honors College students were given a lesson in salsa dancing!) On June 11, the Honors in Cuba program visited Cuba’s Literacy Campaign Museum, which documents the year-long effort to abolish illiteracy in Cuba after the Cuba Revolution in 1961. In this campaign, Fidel Castro mobilized 100,000 young volunteers to bring literacy education to rural areas of the country. In the space of a single year, the national literacy rate increased from 60% to 96%.  

Weekends are reserved for overnight trips to locales outside of Havana. For their first weekend in Cuba, students traveled to Viñales, a lush city in north-central Cuba. Viñales is dotted with mogotes—round, steep hills that rise sharply out of a flat valley—and is an agricultural area where coffee, tobacco, fruit and vegetables are grown. Viñales is rumored to be Fidel Castro’s favorite place in Cuba. While in the area, students will also visit Las Terrazas, a nature reserve.

With what little internet access they have, Honors in Cuba participants have reported back to the Honors College that “Havana is absolutely beautiful”, “everyone we meet is so pleasant” and “eager to help us with our Spanish”, and that they “can’t wait to see what next week has in store!”

Neither can we. Tune in to honors.lsu.edu/news for future Dispatches from Cuba.


Article by Liz Billet, LSU Honors College Communications Coordinator, 225-578-0083, lbillet@lsu.edu

For more information on LSU Honors College study abroad programs, visit honors.lsu.edu or e-mail jjoine2@lsu.edu.