Delegation to Cuba
Few contemporary Louisianans know about the depth of historical and cultural connections between Louisiana and Cuba, but this fall Ogden Honors College dean Jonathan Earle got a chance to see them in person. From the late 1700s until the 1962 embargo on trade with the Caribbean nation, Louisiana and Cuba were significant trading partners who also exchanged cultural touchstones like food and music.
“The historical ties between the two countries were mainly economic. For instance, we grew a lot of their food,” Earle said. “But there was also an intellectual give and take. Our chemical engineering department here at LSU is entirely an outgrowth of sugar engineering from the nineteenth century. A lot of Cuba’s best and brightest would come to LSU and learn how to make sugar out of sugar cane.”
Since the Obama administration restored full diplomatic relations in July of last year, government officials have been looking at ways to work with the island nation, and leading the way is Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards. In October, Earle, along Chris D’Elia, dean of the College of the Coast and Environment, and Kalliat Valsaraj, vice president for Research & Economic Development, joined the governor’s delegation on a trade mission to Cuba.
“I was invited because the Ogden Honors College has a longstanding, thriving, and existing summer program in Cuba,” Earle said. “It was so nice that they called, and that I was able to join the LSU contingent on this important mission.”
The governor and Cuban leaders signed a series of “memoranda of understanding,” pledging to do business and work closely with each other once the U.S. Congress lifts the embargo, which remains in place even as relations are thawing. The recent death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and the election of Donald Trump may have cast doubt on the pace of change, but Earle said he hoped the current trends continue. “There is such a yearning by people in both Cuba and the U.S. to normalize relations–I think it’s no longer a question of ‘if,’ but ‘when.’”
Dean Earle and the LSU contingent also held high-level meetings with academic leaders at the University of Havana and the Cuban Institute of Cultural Research Juan Marinello, where Ogden Honors students take classes during the LSU/Honors in Cuba summer study abroad program, now in its fourth year.
“There’s been a real flowering of academics in Cuba,” Earle said. “Unfortunately, our students can go to Cuba, but their students can’t come here. So we talked a lot about how we can partner in the future.”
“They send their best students in petroleum engineering, for example, to Russia and to Venezuela,” Earle continued. “And both of those places are far and both of those places are chaotic. So the Cuban academic leaders I talked to want to send their top students to LSU—not just in engineering, but to study coastal issues, culture, history and more.”
The trip was an opportunity to look ahead to what is possible, and to strengthen the existing ties between Louisiana and Cuba after years of neglect.
“It was incredible to be a part of such an historic trip,” Earle said. “We were warmly welcomed at the American Ambassador’s residence, which is this grand, historic house, and it underscored the feeling that we’re on a new chapter of Cuban relations with real ambassadorial representation. I was grateful to be a part of that.”
Ogden Honors College students will have the chance to experience Cuba for themselves this summer with the LSU/Honors in Cuba program. Visit LSU’s Academic Programs Abroad for more information on the program or contact Program Coordinator Jeremy Joiner at firstname.lastname@example.org.