Chadron State College students and faculty members took a trip of a lifetime to Cuba to learn about social and humanitarian issues, including income equality, education, crime and poverty.
The idea for a trip originated when Tom Smith, associate professor in social and communication arts, and Deane Tucker, professor of humanities, were thinking about recent changes in Cuba. The trip took two years to arrange.
During their stay, students made observations and gathered firsthand information related to class projects.
“Mine was over the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” said Gary Mills. “For us, it’s big history, but they don’t really talk about it.”
Rachel Camargo focused on the embargo and Neyva Flores researched health care. “They are working with a system that emphasizes prevention,” she said.
The trip was not a holiday at the beach. They were under a strict itinerary and kept busy from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day. “All day we did cultural, historical and educational activities around Havana and the countryside,” Tucker said.
Each evening, the group gathered to discuss what they had learned.
The students noticed a lack of advertising while in Cuba. Camargo said it was nice to not be bombarded with ads. “There isn’t the marketing, but you will see people hustling to sell things on every street corner,” Smith said.
While there is no advertising to purchase consumer goods, there are billboards about the Cuban Revolution. “It’s advertised all the time,” Smith said.
The group visited several markets and discovered the only place a price was set in stone was at a state-sanctioned store, which carries all the staples a person would need. There are markets for everything else.
“If you buy a coffee at a store with Cuban exchange pesos, it’s $2,” Tucker said. “The locals are buying their coffee for 10 cents with national pesos somewhere else.”
During the little free time they had, the students played cards in the hotel bar with locals. They found Cubans to be warm and welcoming.
“They really opened up completely,” Tucker said. “They love baseball and like talking about it.”
Many Cubans travel to the United States for a few months to work and then return home, something Tucker was surprised to learn. Smith said he now knows Cuba has the best rum. “Rum is really good there,” said Camargo.
Since all basic needs are met by the government, the average Cuban makes about $20 per month. Cuba also has a relatively low crime rate.
“They’re given their basic human needs so there’s no need to steal,” Flores said. Tucker said robbing tourists doesn’t happen because they want tourists to keep visiting.
Since everyone is given a home by the government, homelessness isn’t really a problem.
“Everyone has the right to have the same house,” Tucker said. “Everyone is on the same level and there’s a great sense of community.”
This equality is at the heart of the revolution, Smith said. “They are integrated into every aspect of life,” he said.
Even with research, there were still misconceptions about what to expect once the group landed. Mills said he was mostly ignorant about anything related to Cuba. He imagined a run-down country.
“I found smiling people everywhere,” he said. “It was just like every small town in America.”
Other people told Flores she was going to be mugged or killed. “Never once did I feel threatened by anyone,” she said.
Camargo was surprised by the prevalence of English speakers in the country. “I thought with them supposing to be our enemy they wouldn’t want to learn English,” she said.
Cuba is considered a poverty-stricken country by Western standards, but Tucker came away from the trip with a need to redefine what poverty is. “Nobody is starving, they’re dressed well,” he said. “It’s not poverty like we’re used to.”
Group members mentioned a lack of shanty towns often seen in other third world countries. “I didn’t see people in Cuba without a house or a house made of cardboard,” Flores said.
Smith noted that while many aspects of Cuban life are good, it’s not all positive. “Buildings are collapsing,” he said. “Because there are so many programs that help people, there isn’t a lot of money left over for basic infrastructure.”
Smith also mentioned a lack of mechanization of agriculture. It was something he thought he’d never see. Tucker found the openness and freedom “of the people refreshing.
“We had no minders and could talk to anyone,” he said. “They also have a very vibrant night life.”
At the bar, Tucker said he was shocked to see a giant TV blaring VH1.They knew all the words to all the songs,” he said. “They are more like us than what we see in the U.S.”
VH1 isn’t the only channel they receive. There are two or three channels dedicated to Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution.
Mills said the markets were memorable because he was excited to haggle with the people.
“[Mills] saved our group hundreds of dollars,” Tucker said.
Flores remembers the marble monuments in cemeteries built to commemorate important events. Camargo enjoyed the Santeria tour and learning how Cuban culture was shaped by African religions. For Tucker, Salsa dancing was a great introduction to Caribbean culture.
“I really enjoyed the Museum of the Revolution,” Smith said. “It was interesting to see how their historical memory is very different from ours.”
The trip was the culmination of Cuba Libré, an upper-division capstone course in the Essential Studies Program, which is required for graduation.