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Honors in Cuba 2014

An interview with program leader Dr. Devyn Spence Benson

In June of this year, the LSU Honors College will host its first-ever study abroad program in Cuba. Assistant Professor of History Devyn Spence Benson will lead the trip with support from Honors College Advising Coordinator Jeremy Joiner. We spoke with Professor Benson—a Cuba and Latin America scholar—about her research, her extensive travel in Cuba, and what students can expect to learn and experience on this trip.

Tell us a little bit about your personal and academic background.

I grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. I like to tell my students I “bleed Carolina blue” because I have all my degrees (BA, MA, & PhD) from UNC-Chapel Hill. I majored in Spanish as an undergraduate and completed my PhD in graduate school under Louis Pérez, one of the best-known Cubanists in the United States. I wrote a paper in graduate school about Fidel Castro’s visit to Harlem in 1960—asking what it meant for the community in Harlem and what it meant for Cubans on the island. Why was it that Fidel Castro went to Harlem and stayed in a black hotel in the 1960s when most white leaders wouldn’t have done that? This paper really got me thinking about Cuba’s civil rights campaign, which turned into my dissertation topic.  This research will be published in my book, Not Blacks But Citizens: Race and Revolution in Cuba.

How often do you travel to Cuba? 

I first visited Cuba in 2003 to do research for my Master’s thesis.  This trip was probably the hardest trip I’ve ever taken to Cuba because I didn’t stay in the capital city. My advisor sent me to a small town [Yaguajay] that was literally fourteen blocks by fourteen blocks and still had horse-drawn buggies, very little running water, no air conditioning, and an average temperature of 110 degrees.  Yaguajay is one of those small towns that is completely cut-off from foreign visitors.  After this trip, I spent more time in Cuba’s largest cities—Havana and Santiago. Since 2003, I’ve been back to Cuba over than 20 times.  I have traveled about once or twice a year for the past ten years! While at UNC, I led a study abroad trip for a semester—where I lived with students in Havana for six months. I’ve also led two other short study abroad trips—one at Williams College and another at Harvard just recently, in January.  Having been back so many times, over so many years there’s a part of the Vedado neighborhood that feels like my home away from home in Havana.

Can you share some of your impressions of Cuba?

One of the things that makes Cuba really interesting is that until recently it’s been cut off from the rest of the world. The United States has had a travel embargo in place in Cuba since the 1961 Bay of Pigs crisis—which means Americans cannot travel to Cuba. The U.S. does not trade with Cuba. One of things I think strikes first-time visitors immediately when they arrive in Cuba is the absence of American products. We take for granted in the U.S. that everywhere you drive you’re going to see billboards for McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, or Starbucks. Even if you went to Mexico, China, or Paris, you would likely see those same things. But, in Cuba you don’t see any of that and it is really fascinating. It’s a different economy because the state government is a socialist government.  Instead of seeing billboards and posters advertising material products, you will see billboards and posters that say things like “Socialism or Death” and “Fifty More Years of Revolution”—these are political posters, very nationalistic ones advertising for the revolution. The vast majority of the images you see in Cuba look drastically different than anything you would see in the United States.

One of the things that students often bring [up] is “Well, we’ve only heard bad things about Fidel Castro—he’s Communist, he’s a dictator, he’s terrible.” Only by understanding the history of Cuba and how Cuba initially fought for its independence from Spain and then later felt like it was fighting for independence from the United States, can we understand the rise of Fidel Castro and why he’s been able to endure. He was popular there in a way that Americans can’t imagine him being popular. Castro will give six-hour speeches and thousands of people will stand for hours and hours and listen and cheer and chant and have emotional reactions to it.

Havana feels like a city anywhere else. It reminds me of a New York or Mexico City, in that it’s large and there’s a lot of hustle and bustle. It’s not provincial in any way—it’s very much a city of the world, it’s just not connected to the United States.

What are the travel rules—how are you able to visit Cuba so often, legally?

With a travel embargo, Americans are not allowed to travel to Cuba—unless they have special permission. Americans are required to have a certain license. What we’ll be doing is traveling under the general license. Students who are enrolled in a university course for credit are allowed to legally travel to Cuba. We will not have any problems either going into Cuba or getting out of Cuba. However, to be fair, these are travel restrictions on the United States’ part. Cuba does not have an embargo against the United States or limit foreign travel into the country.

I think it’s really important for students to know that Cuba is incredibly safe. It is probably one of the safest places in the world for a foreigner to travel, because so much of the GNP comes from the tourist economy; it’s very important [to the government] that tourists feel safe.

What do you have planned for the Honors in Cuba program?

The program offers students two different courses: one is a 2000-level History course—History and Politics in Cuba—and the second will be a 3000-level Honors course—Cuban Culture and Society. The History course will deal with US-Cuban relations and Cuban history from 1860 to 1960. The second course will deal more with art and culture and music and the ways that Cubans imagine their national identity through cultural practices. We’re going to go to museums—the Museum of the Revolution, and the National Museum of Art—and take site visits to studios to learn from Cuban artists and musicians about the country’s culture. 

The plan is to be in Cuba for two and a half weeks—June 1 through June 17 or 18. We’re going to have a couple of days of orientation, background reading, and coursework before we leave, so that you are prepared before we walk into the country where we’re are being hosted. I will also spend a day orienting you with general knowledge about the city, its currency, and transportation. I will talk to students about how to carry themselves as foreigners in Cuba. We want everyone to go into the experience well prepared.

What kind of students or majors do you think would be most interested in this program?

This is the type of trip that initially appeals to the humanities—history, political science, international studies, sociology majors—and of course, anyone who is a Spanish major. But, I also think that it could be valuable for students in the natural sciences. Cuba’s really proud of the way their medical system works. They created a system that doesn’t require a lot of resources to be effective. Doctors go into residency in their first year of med school, so they’re both learning and practicing at the same time. They also do a lot of preventative care—most family doctors make home visits, much more regularly than we have physicals—maybe once a month. Family healthcare is the center of the society in a way that I think is really interesting for anyone who is [planning] on being a doctor or a nurse to see.

Anything else you’d like to say to students considering this trip?

This course offers students an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Cuba and see a system that’s really different from the United States. As of right now, the travel embargo isn’t going anywhere; therefore, the only way that most Americans will ever be able to travel to Cuba legally is as an undergraduate at a credit-granting institution.

Why is it important for the United States to continue the embargo after 50 years? How will the Cuban economy grow and change with expanding globalization? How has our perspective of Cuba been shaped and molded through the North American narrative? In this program, we're going to explore these questions--and many, many, more.


Students interested in the Honors in Cuba program can apply through LSU's Academic Programs Abroad website, or for more information, contact Jeremy Joiner at or 225-578-8850.