Students spend spring break in Cuba, standing at crossroads in history

Penn State School of International Affairs students Shawn McFarland and Lauren Horner Michael Martin Garrett April 5, 2017 | UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Students from Penn State Law and the Penn State School of International Affairs (SIA) spent their spring break this year standing at a crossroads in history.

Over a week in Cuba as part of “Cuba: Law, Economics, and Politics”—an embedded program led by Larry Catá Backer, professor of law and international affairs and Cuban native—students saw firsthand how the Caribbean nation is rapidly evolving.

“One of the major themes of the week was that Cuba is on the cusp of change, that it’s at a crossroads between how things have been for the last six decades, and the potential for where it can go now,” said SIA student Shawn McFarland. “So to be there at this moment in time was incredible.”

For law student Chris Renaud, the changes underway in Cuba were almost palpable, a historic transition happening before their eyes. State control of the economy is loosening as more private business, foreign investment and tourism come to Cuban shores. Diplomatic relations with the United States are being normalized, opening up greater opportunities for international dialogue and collaboration. And, for the first time in decades, Cuba is poised to have a president outside the Castro family.

“Cuba seemed to me a country in anticipation, a country that’s been waiting for something for a long time that hasn’t yet come to pass,” Renaud said. “In Cuba, you see the old and the new, the free market and Marxist-Leninist systems, different cultures, different faiths, all coming together in a way you can’t experience anywhere else in the world. And in five or ten years that experience— of what Cuba is at this moment, what Cuba has been for a long time—may be gone.”

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