John Finn: Better relations between U.S., Cuba helps both countries

John C. Finn, assistant professor of geography, Christopher Newport University

I RECENTLY RETURNED from leading 17 teachers from across Virginia on an 11-day educational tour of Cuba, sponsored by the Virginia Geographic Alliance.

Based on our collective experience, we believe that President Donald Trump’s planned roll-back of former President Barack Obama’s rapprochement with the island nation, and his apparent desire to return to a more antagonistic U.S. policy toward Cuba, is misinformed and will negatively affect Cubans and Americans alike.

When Obama made his historic trip to Cuba in March 2016, he stated that Cuba’s future should be determined by Cubans, and especially young Cubans. We couldn’t agree more. In fact, it’s already happening.

While we were in Cuba, we met with a sustainable farmer and small-scale farm owner at the front edge of the agro-ecology movement in Cuba. We talked with representatives of several neighborhood-based non-governmental social projects dedicated to local community development, social justice and equal access. We toured the town of Las Terrazas, a community of approximately 1,200 people situated inside a UNESCO biosphere reserve that focuses on sustainable local development through ecotourism and sustainable forestry.

We met with the dancers and musicians who make up Habana Compás Dance, an internationally touring private dance company with studios deep in the heart of Afro-Cuban Havana, where they also operate a summer camp for hundreds of young boys and girls. We rode in taxis operated by privately owned cooperatives, and we ate in private, in-home restaurants.

We met with the owner and operator of two rental apartments that she books through Airbnb, and we spent an afternoon and evening with a young entrepreneur developing a food-based “experience” that he’s preparing to market via Airbnb. In all of these examples, and in many others, individuals and small groups are forging their futures within the boundaries of recent economic reforms inside Cuba.

To be sure, we also saw the Cuban government directly involved in other aspects of economic development. We stayed in government-run hotels, dined at state-owned restaurants, traveled with a state-owned tour company, shopped at state-owned markets and in many other instances interacted with Cuba’s top-down command economy.

And we experienced ample evidence of the history of antagonistic U.S.-Cuba relations from a Cuban perspective, from the Bay of Pigs museum that celebrates Cuba’s victory at the Bay of Pigs as the “first major defeat of Yankee imperialism in Latin America” to the abundance of billboards denouncing the U.S. embargo of Cuba and celebrating the “successes” of Cuba in the face of U.S. aggression.

And unsurprisingly, we experienced numerous political and economic differences between the United States and Cuba that didn’t seem to make sense to us or that we openly disagreed with.

Across all these experiences, one thing was abundantly clear: Cubans are not passive bystanders in their futures. Contrary to popular American discourse, the clock did not stop in Cuba in 1959, only to be restarted at a time and under circumstances determined by the United States. Cubans are, and have been, actively creating their own future under difficult circumstances imposed both from within and abroad.

Now, what, as educators, did we experience that contributes directly to our classroom, to our pedagogy and to our students? After all, the purpose of our trip wasn’t just to experience Cuba, but to discover ways that our two countries’ shared history can contribute to our teaching. In addition to the overwhelming but amorphous and hard-to-quantify ways in which personal experience enriches our teaching, we argue that there are four clear ways that engagement with and travel to Cuba directly and positively impacts our teaching and our students.

First, physically visiting an area of the world can help debunk myths we have about places. After being in Cuba and interacting with the people and landscape of the country, we bring home new perspectives that we will share with our students, who will ultimately be making the decisions for our country.

Second, many educators in Virginia work with students from other countries. While in Cuba, many of us felt stereotyped and experienced culture shock. We believe that these experiences create a deeper empathy and understanding of what our immigrant students face every day. For many of us, this experience will contribute to lessons on empathy, cultural awareness and understanding, and acts as a reminder of the effort it takes to listen, comprehend and converse in a foreign language.

Third, for all educators, but especially in the fields of foreign languages and geography, it’s essential that our students understand and learn about the people and cultures of other countries. And it is clear to us that students are more interested and engaged when teachers can teach material based on first-hand experience.

Finally, our experience made perfectly clear that there is another side to what is generally accepted as “truth” throughout U.S. classrooms. From the Bay of Pigs to the Cuban Missile Crisis, from the continuing economic effects of the United States’ embargo to the value of the Cuban Revolution to begin with, experiencing Cuba from a Cuban perspective has served to complicate our notion of “fact,” if only to lead us to understand that different people in different places judge history differently.

In the end, based on our shared experience, we feel strongly that the best way forward is precisely not to further restrict relations between Cuba and the United States. Rather, it seems to us that the logical path forward is one of increasing openness, which will further the ability of Cubans, and especially young Cubans, to chart their own futures, and will have immeasurable benefits to students and educators in Virginia and across the United States.

John C. Finn, The Virginian-Pilot

September 3, 2017

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