BY MECKLIN RAGAN
Nine other Rice students and I had the opportunity to go to Havana over spring break, and it was definitely an experience I will never forget.
Now, you may be wondering, “Cuba! How did these students get to go to Cuba? Isn’t that illegal?” And you would be correct. Technically, with the embargo against Cuba that was put into place in October 1960, it is illegal for United States citizens to go to Cuba; however, under the Obama administration, the restrictions have been loosened. There are three possible ways for a U.S. citizen to legally obtain a visa to visit Cuba: if you have relatives in Cuba, if you are going for religious reasons or to perform missionary work or if you are a student going for educational purposes. Obviously, we fell into the third category.
We are all currently in a class taught by Professors Luis Duno-Gottberg and Fabiola López-Durán titled A Revolution from Within: Trends in Contemporary Cuban Culture. In the weeks leading up to our trip, we prepared by studying all we could about Cuban history and culture, specifically the Cuban revolution, music, arts, cinema and literature. As each week passed, I got more and more excited about going to Cuba, and the thought that I would get to see and experience the things I had been learning about. Beyond that, my maternal grandmother, her siblings and my aunt were born and raised in Cuba. My grandparents and my aunt left Cuba shortly before the revolution and moved to Venezuela. Growing up, I had heard many stories about Cuba — where my family lived and what daily life was like there before the revolution.
When we arrived in Havana, the feeling was surreal. The city was absolutely magnificent, and over the 10 days we were there, we definitely made the most of our experience. We went on an architectural tour around the city with Dr. Isabel Rigol, a professor of architecture in Cuba. We toured museums, including the Museo de Bellas Artes and the Museum of the Revolution. We spent a day at the beach. We visited the home and studio of Cuban artist Sandra Ramos. We went to the theater to see a movie. We had conversations with authors and intellectuals, including Marilyn Bobes and Olga Marta Perez. We learned about the evolution of Cuban music and the various types of instruments used during a special presentation at El Palacio de la Rumba and listened to live music at various cafes and restaurants. We took a day trip to the colonial city of Trinidad, where we went on an architectural tour of the city with one of the architects responsible for its restoration, and we even danced at a club in a natural cave.
While all of this was absolutely amazing and invaluable to our overall experience, my favorite part of the trip was getting to meet and talk to the locals. You would think that upon hearing we were from the United States, we would have been given the cold shoulder; it was entirely the opposite. The people we met, cab drivers, our host families, people in the neighborhoods, all wanted to talk to us and tell us about their lives. They immediately opened up, answered our questions and were eager to correct some of our misconceptions about Cuba and the Cuban lifestyle.
For instance, Cuba has a nationalized health care system. Because I am interested in medicine, I was curious to see what the people thought about their health care system. One evening I brought it up during a conversation with our dear friend and guide, Pepe. He replied, “You know, in America you might be free to speak your mind, but what’s the point of being able to speak your mind if you’re not healthy? I’d rather not be able to say what I think, have my thoughts and have my health because without your health, you have nothing.” I had not thought about it from that point of view.
Everything in Cuba is so different from what you might expect. For example, the streets are very safe, and drugs do not pose a large problem. Yes, there is a considerable amount of poverty, but you do not see people sleeping on the streets; everyone has a place to stay. Just like any other country, Cuba has its problems; however, they do not deal with several of the problems seen in other Third World countries.
We were fortunate enough to travel to Cuba during what will one day be referred to as a very important time in Cuban history. Although the revolution continues, younger generations do not have the same passion for it that their parents do because they did not experience life pre- and post-revolution. Since the younger generation did not witness these changes, they are only able to see the problems that still exist and appear to have been caused in part by the revolution. Personally, I will be very interested to see what happens in the coming years as life in Cuba continues to evolve.
I could continue going on and on, but it is almost impossible to describe exactly what I experienced, what I saw and how I felt during those 10 days. It is so strange to think that 60 years ago my grandparents were living there, and that still today I have family I’ve never met before living in Cuba. I sincerely hope that this class continues to be offered, and that Rice students take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
–Mecklin Ragan is a Duncan College junior majoring in biochemistry and cell biology.