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"Nothing in a classroom in the States can really prepare you for Cuba," he said. However, he added, "I would say that I was probably as prepared as I could have been by the cultural aspects highlighted in my Spanish and Political Science classes."
I initially started with Poli-Sci since I'd always wanted to be involved in shaping the course of public policy and instigating meaningful change, both through and beyond government functions. My Spanish minor, which from a motivational standpoint had begun as an attempt to culminate a lifetime of futile beginning-level Spanish classes and finally be able to speak with my dad in his native tongue, evolved into a major after I studied abroad in Mexico during the summer after freshman year, which provided me with enough course credit to consider making it a major … Part of the reason why my majors all fit so well together (at least for me) is that each contributes to a greater understanding of how and why we function collectively the way we do. The historical aspect of Political Science is key because, as cliche as it sounds, it is incredibly vital that we can learn how to learn from the past and apply those lessons to the future; Political Science also offers a cognizance of social and cultural interactions that are incredibly important when working from a governmental perspective. To me, it sort of seems to be a great (and useful) compromise between History and Sociology. Meanwhile, there were a million reasons for me to try and pick up Spanish (and the same can be said of any language), not the least of which was my Cuban heritage. Language allows us to access cultures in ways that no translation ever could. It has opened up tremendous proverbial doors for me.
Ever since I came to UF, and especially after those two summer months in Mexico, I'd always believed in the back of my mind that I'd do a semester abroad. Obviously (you can ask anybody who decides to sacrifice 1/8 of their time at college), it takes a lot to actually commit to doing it, so when it came time to actually sit down and say, “this is where I want to spend four months,” I wanted to make it interesting. With all of the mystery and aura (both positive and negative) surrounding Cuba, I thought it would be an experience I could talk about for the rest of my life. At a deeper level, I had a strong desire to understand my roots and my father's heritage. Plus my grandma once said she'd studied at the University of Havana in the 40's, so that was extra motivation to make it come full-circle.
I started my search in April of sophomore year, checking at the Study Abroad office, sending letters to the Cuban Interest Section and Consulate in Washington D.C. (even visiting it during my brother's graduation from GW, although they said it would be 'impossible'), taking all the necessary steps to try and solicit my own individual academic license from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control looking for every opportunity I could. Nobody was really enthusiastic about helping me. Finally, through the miracle of the Internet, I found a program run by a tiny little Vermont school called Burlington College, which was one of three programs in the country that allowed students from other schools to apply (for instance, only Harvard students can do the Harvard program, etc). In order to get to Havana, I had to fly to Washington, D.C., then to Vermont, then drive to Montreal, then fly back down to Cuba for a net movement of about 300 miles. The entire process required a big leap of faith, as there really isn't a whole lot of information coming in from the Cuban side, but it really proved to surpass my expectations and has thus far been an extremely worthwhile experience.
On one hand, nothing in a classroom in the States can really prepare you per se for Cuba; I think that's because the perception of Cuba in the U.S. is a bit skewed because of our negative prior history, especially in Florida, with the significant Cuban exile population in Miami. The socialist way of life isn't entirely evident to one who spends a short time here, and it really is not as threatening, in my opinion, as we've made it out to be. This is not to condone many of the atrocities that were committed during the revolution, but the people here really do seem to enjoy many parts of their life. Many I talk to do speak of a desire for more absolute freedoms, as the regulation of the majority of aspects of life (your job, where you live, your rations, all that stuff) would definitely be extremely saddening to someone coming from our society. But there are positive aspects to it as well; there is very little violent crime, as guns are super-illegal, and homelessness and poverty is incredibly rare in comparison to what you'd see on the streets of New York or D.C. I mean, at the end of the day, it is a third-world country, but the people are incredibly vibrant, eager to talk, and extremely resourceful with the little they have. Just look at the fifty- and sixty-year-old cars that still cover the streets; they've made those last entire lifetimes, when some people back home can't even care for a vehicle for ten years.
The purchasing power is incredibly low, as the average Cuban makes the equivalent of $15 dollars a month (some say less), but the society as a whole seems to be much less materialistic and consumer-based than I've seen in capitalist Latin American countries like Peru or Mexico. I mean, from a commercial standpoint, what they do have here is incredibly abundant and cheap. But a weird adjustment has been the use of the dual-currency system; they have a currency for tourists (1 Cuban Convertible Peso equals about a dollar) and one for the Cubans (1 Peso Nacional equals about 4 cents). You have to use the first in richer areas and the second on the streets; it's unlike anything I've ever seen before. Moreover, there is a strong Afro-Cuban presence here that pervades every aspect of the culture, which is a very neat aspect that I did not expect to encounter. On the surface there appears to be very little racism, which could in part be due to the almost universal perceived social equality of everybody due to the socialist system.
Needless to say, there is definitely a great deal of challenges the people here have to deal with. Things we take for granted are non-existent here. There is not a great deal of selection in terms of food. In most parts, having a lot of money (for instance, someone coming from the U.S.) doesn't mean that you get better things, only that you can get more of a given thing. For instance, I eat a lot of bread (and I mean a lot; literally, I think it's going to be unhealthy so I'm trying to cut down a little). I can't use the extra money in my pocket to buy a better type of bread, only more of the same low-quality bread. That was just a random personal observation I had, but I think this lack of selection largely accounts for why everybody here is pretty much equal in quality of life (as low as it might be). There are relatively few rich people, only politicians and the like. And people seem very excited when I tell them that I'm from the U.S.; sometimes, I'll say Miami instead of Orlando just to make it easy, and a lot of people like to talk about their family there. The general sentiment (for the most part, at least) is that the Cubans are very willing to accept Americans into their culture; they just blame the U.S government for not reciprocating the sentiment. They open up to us, we just don't accept them.
In my personal opinion, and I'm not sure if this would be supported by others, I think that the Revolution is pretty much in its dying stages. Capitalism has worked its way in (which makes sense when we consider that pretty much every country except for us has established diplomatic relations; for instance, the British have extremely strong ties to the Cubans, as proven by the fact that I happen to live right by Parque Lennon, which is named not after Lenin the Socialist, but John Lennon the Beatle).
As far as my daily life, it is pretty easy because I'm both a foreigner and a student. I'm living in the Vedado neighborhood in a residence run by a farmer's commune; basically that means that it is self-sustaining, and that the organization has a farm outside the city that provides all the food we eat. They say that once a month we'll go out there and do some work, not because we necessarily have to but just because we want to help out. The tuition fees already cover the costs. We walk everywhere because its the most economical option, although if you have to go somewhere far you can hitchhike in one of the really old cars and pay the driver a small compensation.
Classes are really intense because they don't slow down their speech or alter their accents in the least to accommodate, so it’s going to be a tough adjustment. I've been exploring the town with my free time, trying to get a feel for the life of a typical Cuban. It really is an extremely aesthetically pleasing place, as I'm only five blocks away from the iconic Malecon that runs along the northern shore of the city, a mere 90 miles from the States. It's funny because I went for a night run at a track by the shore last Sunday, and it was only yesterday that I realized the Super Bowl had occurred during that same time I'd been looking in the direction of Florida; there is a bit of disconnect from certain aspects of the world, but it is also a good thing because it makes everybody focus on their friendships and family. The only material weakness some people seem to have is for their TV, as some people love to watch it for hours even though there are only five channels. Plus they love their baseball, which is huge here. Tomorrow I'm going to see the biggest rivalry in the country, between Havana and Santiago; Santiago is the second-biggest city, where my father lived for ten years before leaving for Detroit. It’s like Yankees-Red Sox except people die. And, the next day I'm going to see a world-renowned orchestra play at the Karl Marx theatre. These sorts of events are a great way to experience the artistic side of the culture.
I would say that I was probably as prepared as I could have been by the cultural aspects highlighted in my Spanish and Political Science classes; as with anything though, the best way to really learn about something like cubanidad, which over here is used frequently to describe the essence of everything that embodies what it is to be Cuban (the language, the culture, the emotions, etc), is to actually experience it and immerse yourself in it. As I've learned here, all in all, you can overcome the perpetual material and financial shortcomings as long as you enjoy what you have to the fullest, especially with respect to your relationships with others. Again, I'm sure this applies to anybody who studies abroad, but you really just have to adapt your surroundings as best as you can, while also not forgetting to maintain who you are. I've tried to volunteer my time a little by teaching English to some children after school, and it's great to see a positive impact that can be made across rather difficult social boundaries (although this definitely isn't Northern Ireland-Ireland- or Israel-Palestine-type stuff). The people here are incredibly open to hearing your ideas and sharing their own, and I think that is the universal message that I'll take away from this experience which comes full circle with why I study what I do: at the end of the day, socialist or capitalist, Espanol or English, Cubano or Americano, we really aren't that different after all.