Insights and Impact

A Cuban Education

From old Havana to a country schoolhouse, 15 students take a candid look at the colorful, complex Caribbean isle


many photos of cuba
Photos by Avery Luck, Sophia Miyoshi, Lauren Silber, and Mike Unger

The rickety old pier jutted out about the length of a football field from the rough brown sand into the Caribbean Sea. While most cautiously eyed the shaky structure, which looked as if it might collapse in the brisk breeze, Sophia Miyoshi, CAS/BA '15, hopped on and began creeping toward the end. One by one her friends followed, stepping lightly on rotten, splintering beams, jumping over missing ones. As they made progress, they turned back to encourage others to come. Soon nearly the whole group reached the end, where a lone fisherman sat on a bucket.

This was a rare moment of pure unwind for the group of American University students studying access to higher education in Cuba as part of the alternative breaks program. They had spent their week immersing themselves in the country's culture, history, politics, and people. Days included conversations, both planned and impromptu, with Cuban students, lectures from professors, trips to a rural elementary school, and museum tours. Now, in this small fishing village about 190 kilometers northwest of Havana, it was time to exhale.

Youthful exuberance took over. Cullen Moran, SIS/BA '16, was the first to leap into the lukewarm water, his friends following close behind. As they splashed and laughed on a windy Wednesday late afternoon, their spirit proved too intoxicating for the fisherman, who stripped down to his striped-and-starred green boxers and plunged in as well.

It was one of a hundred genuine moments the students shared with their hosts, the kind of flash friendship that makes travel addictive. To some in the group, the trip was an exhilarating medley of memories and photos that will settle into the timelines of their lives alongside past journeys and those not yet taken.

To others, it was nothing short of transformational.

"It will make me more understanding of different perspectives in my classroom," says Trey Owens, CAS/BA '13, who's heading to New Orleans in the fall as part of Teach for America. "It broke down my U.S.-centric world view and allowed me to see how people interact in different environments and cultures. That's not something I will ever forget."

Even during downtime, serious conversation always bubbled to the surface. That serene afternoon in the province of Pinar del Rio was no exception. While their friends toweled off and delicately made their way back across the pier, Tom O'Connor, SOC/BA '15, and Miyoshi sat on the grass and tried to process everything they'd seen so far.

Thinking critically about Cuba can be overwhelming. It's a country whose education system is admired throughout the Americas (its literacy rate is a whopping 97 percent), yet its government struggles to provide citizens with basic necessities like toothpaste. It's a nation that produces top-rate doctors, but where for many the primary mode of transportation is a bike, the bus, or their own two feet. In processing these complexities, O'Connor and Miyoshi returned to advice offered by Professor Phil Brenner before they departed.

"The hard thing I've learned about studying Cuba is you should go with a blank mind, and it's almost impossible to do that," he said on the first day of his class on Cuba. He created the one-credit course specifically for students on the trip. "Write down everything you see. You can think about it later. Talk to the people. Look at their faces. Are they smiling? Go with no preconceived notions."

That was easy for O'Connor, a journalism major who constantly was scribbling in his notebook. He'd only been abroad once before, to Ireland, but was so taken with the idea of traveling to Cuba for spring break that he planned to work as a carpenter all summer to pay his mom back for the trip.

"When you don't know what to expect, everything is a surprise," he says. "I think we continue to imagine the Cuban people as either hard-line, hateful communists or victims of a malicious, totalitarian state. We can't imagine that, in reality, Cubans are, in a lot of ways, like us. They have individual hopes, dreams, fears, beliefs."

Many of which undoubtedly are the same as the 15 AU students on this trip and the roughly 200 who each year go to places ranging from South Africa to San Francisco as part of AU's alt breaks, as they've come to be known.

Perspectives are altered, relationships are formed, values are challenged.

Rickety piers are crossed.

The gift of attention

In the fall of 1998, Hurricane Mitch made landfall in Honduras, pounding the country with 80-mile-per-hour winds and rain that caused catastrophic flooding, mudslides, and the deaths of thousands of people.

AU chaplain Joe Eldridge lived in Honduras in the 1980s and was anguished by the pain and suffering he saw in his former home.

"It seemed to me that American University would be fertile ground for students interested in doing something for spring break other than going to Cancun," he says. "So we organized a group and went to a place called Corralitos, which was a little village that had been devastated and had no running water or electricity."

Alternative breaks at AU were born.

"We helped put up a bodega, but manual labor is not in short supply in Central America," Eldridge says. "The most important thing we did there was give the gift of our attention."

The alternative breaks concept began popping up on college campuses in the late 1980s. In 1991 two Vanderbilt University students founded Break Away, now a nonprofit that offers alt break training and best practices to more than 100 universities, including AU.

Rather than emphasize only community service, AU's program stresses social justice as well.

"While we do some disaster relief, it's more focused on building solidarity and activism," says Shoshanna Sumka, assistant director of global learning and leadership. "It's about staying in contact with the community that you worked with, or doing some kind of activism around that issue. It's about having a society
of active citizens, and not about just one trip."

Yet for many, one trip can be life changing. Maggie Holden, SIS/BA '04, SIS/MA '06, led a group to the Thai-Burma border, and wound up writing a book on Burmese refugees. As a freshman, Katie Mayer, SIS/BA, Kogod/BS '10, applied for the trip to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota because it was the least expensive.

"The biggest moment for me was realizing that this level of poverty existed in our country and I had no idea about it," she says. "The first thing I saw was the poverty, but as the trip continued we started to understand why. There was a woman who said to me, 'People always come here and stare at me, but no one ever comes back.'"

Mayer did. She led two subsequent alt breaks to the reservation and another to the Navajo Nation. Along the way she joined AU's Student Advocates for Native Communities, and scrapped her plans for a career in international development. In May she graduated from law school with a focus on Native American law.

"It changed my career path," she says. "We talked to people, wrestled with what we saw and what we could do about it. It gives people a chance to become leaders and see that, if you care about something, you can do something about that cause. I didn't realize I could have done all that when I started out that first year."

La Isla Grande

Forty-five minutes after the World Atlantic charter flight took off from Miami, it landed at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport. Passports were stamped, currency exchanged, a bag misplaced, and the adventure was on.

Outside in the bright sunshine, 1950s-era American cars zipped through the streets, their high-pitched horns beeping like cartoon sound effects. This was Cuba's first surprise: spotting an antique Chevy or Dodge is not a rarity—it's the norm.

Havana, the cliché goes, looks like a city frozen in time. It's almost true. In many ways its architecture and infrastructure have not changed much since the revolution triumphed in 1959, but downtown, the group's first stop, time most certainly has marched on. Paint is peeling on seemingly every building, many of which are crumbling
or vacant. Broken-down cars dot the streets, their hoods propped up as bikes, mopeds, sedans, packed buses, and even
the occasional horse and buggy maneuver around them. Every Cuban who owns a car is a mechanic, the saying goes.

The lack of commercialism was startling to Americans first visiting one of the world's least market-based economies. The country's landscape is barren of strip malls, most billboards, really advertising of any kind. In a place where the average monthly income is roughly the equivalent of $30, where buying a car has only recently become possible, there's not much to sell.

Yet as the week unfolded, the students came to realize that having little is not the same as having nothing at all.

"You don't see the dire poverty," said Miguel Salazar, Kogod/BS '16. "Everyone has the necessities and not much more, so you have to ask yourself, is that because of socialism or the embargo?"

The question was a particularly poignant one for Salazar and Allison Boyle, Kogod/BS '15, both of whom have Cuban heritage. The island was more than a destination for them. In one sense, it was a homecoming.

"Coming here I was very comfortable with the people and how they act, because that's how my family acts back home in New Jersey," said Boyle, whose mother, Pilar, was born in Cuba, left for Spain at the age of 11, and moved to the U.S. in 1974. This was Boyle's first trip to the island, and among the relatives she hugged for the first time during an unlikely family reunion was her mother's half-sister, Mirian.

"It was a weird feeling because I was meeting people that I don't know, but when they saw me, they started crying, and when they left I started crying," she says. "It was much more emotional than I was expecting. It shows that family is really important for Cubans—and for me."

Salazar grew up in Miami, where opinions on Cuba are as strong as the coffee. His grandfather fled Cuba after the revolution and doesn't shy from making his anti-Castro feelings known. But Salazar's American-born father has a much more nuanced view. He supports opening relations between the two countries and has visited Cuba several times.

"I've never spoken as much Spanish as I have here. I've never felt as comfortable interacting with Cuban people as I have here. I've always wanted to be an individual, but my identity starts from day one, my birth. I am Cuban and there is a country that does inform a lot about my life and family, and the way I grew up. This trip has changed how I'm going to view myself for the rest of my life."

Boyle's familial awakening was organized thousands of miles away by her mother. She met her relatives one sunny afternoon on the front porch of the Martin Luther King Center, the church-run educational facility in the Marianao district (about seven miles southwest of Old Havana), where the AU students stayed.

After some initial awkwardness subsided, they proudly showed Boyle a photo album of her distant cousin's quinceanera, the traditional coming-of-age party for a 15-year-old Latina. As Boyle turned each page, complimenting (in Spanish) picture after picture of girls in pretty dresses and plenty of makeup, the women gushed and the men beamed. 

Less than an hour later, the seven relatives piled back into the rented, shineless, blue 1950s Ford pickup truck for the long drive home.

"It made me appreciate how close I am with my family in the U.S., and it also brought to mind that I may never see [my Cuban relatives] again," Boyle said, her eyes welling with tears. "They don't have a lot of money, and they took the time to come out from the country and visit me, and that means a lot.

"I don't even know why I'm crying. Happiness, I guess."

Travel, not vacation

Under the terms of the U.S.'s longstanding embargo against Cuba, travel to the island strictly for tourism is illegal. The U.S. Treasury Department, however, does issue licenses for Americans to visit for educational purposes. This meant the AU group had to book its trip through the Minneapolis-based Center for Global Education, which planned much of the room, board, transportation, and itinerary of educational activities for the alt break.

This was travel, not vacation. The two are not interchangeable. Days began around 8 a.m. and were packed. The group visited the U.S. embassy equivalent (officially, the U.S. Interests Section); went to a food-rationing market; and watched a dazzling Afro-Cuban musical group perform. They grabbed catnaps and wrote in their journals during the little free time they had, until the pulsating beats of downtown salsa and hip-hop clubs beckoned.

Sometimes they veered from the script. Marcy Campos, director of AU's Center for Community Engagement and Service and one of two staff advisors on the trip, took the group to the home of a couple that had hosted an American exchange student at the University of Havana. In the tight confines of the tiny apartment—by far the nicest in a once-regal home now run-down and divided into multiple dwellings—the students and their hosts danced and laughed the night away.

"Cubans were some of the most welcoming people I've ever come across," O'Connor says. "I met a lot of interesting characters, and each of them treated me with respect, despite the political relationship between our countries. Many went out of their way to explain how such petty politics should not affect the way we view each other."

In a society ruled by one man and his brother for more than a half century, no one appeared particularly concerned with censorship or ramifications for speaking their mind. But what goes unsaid can't be known.

"We have social justice—our schools, health care, and access to culture are excellent—but we do not have civil rights," said Ariel, the group's 38-year-old guide, whose deep knowledge of Cuban history and culture and determination to present an unfiltered view of his beloved country endeared him to the AU students. "We have one party, we have no freedom of speech. The government controls the newspapers and television stations. I can say what I want, but no one is there to hear me. That is not freedom of speech."

Re-evaluating priorities

One hundred sixty-eight hours flew by. When the students disembarked in Miami and walked through the maze of airport hallways toward customs, one of the first images they saw was an advertisement featuring a bejeweled woman holding multiple shopping bags in each hand. It was a jarring sight for people who had spent the past week of their lives in a consumerism-free country just 90 miles—yet a world—away.

Back on American soil, the first thing most did was dig for their cell phones, dormant for no doubt the longest period of their existence. After a week of rice and beans, they scattered in search of a greasy slice of pizza or McAnything, and began the adjustment to capitalism. This is their reality, but the impact of their travels won't soon fade from their consciousness.

"The Cuban way of life made me re-evaluate my priorities," says Thomas Cheng, SPA/BA, SOC/BA '13, who will teach English in China this summer. "It's not about how much money you have, it's more about the person-to-person connections and your passions. As someone who's going to be teaching, it really made an impression on me."

Brenner noticed growth in his students' thinking after they returned.

"They all had something meaningful to say," he says. "They could be little things, the way in which people put up with difficulties in daily life, the fact that they make a real distinction between people from the United States and U.S. government policy. It was wonderful to feel the sense of excitement they had."

In late April the students organized an on-campus panel about Cuba's inclusion on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Afterwards, they chatted about finals and reminisced about their time in Cuba.

It was hard to believe that just six weeks earlier a small group had ventured downtown to explore the Hotel Nacional in Havana. Once a world-famous destination that hosted the likes of Frank Sinatra and Winston Churchill, it remains one of the city's ritziest hotels. In the early morning mist, conversation on the marble patio overlooking the Malecon, a wide, winding boulevard that hugs the Caribbean, ranged from politics to education to the very nature of humanity. The alt breakers had come to Cuba "blissfully ignorant," in the words of one student, and now were contemplating questions for which scholars who have studied this mysterious and proud country for decades have no definitive answers.

"Cuba is full of contradictions," Miguel Salazar said, "and I love it."

He leaned back in his chair, puffed on his hand-rolled cigar, and blew a plume of smoke into the cool Havana night.