12 Eventful Days in Havana - Renewing Experiential Education Abroad

In March 2020 Cuban jazz pianist Aldo López-Gavilán performed at Queen’s University in Kingston, in what was the last live concert many of us saw for the next 2 years. The audience included 30 students who learned the next day we could not continue our Cuban Culture course in Havana as we had the previous 12 years. Last week, some of those same students attended Aldo's concert at the Fábrica de Arte Cubano as we resumed our course in Havana this May.

The sweet symmetry of this timing was a clear indication that despite enormous difficulties and challenges, international educational exchanges have again become possible.

A group of 16 students, along with a couple of faculty colleagues, joined instructors Karen Dubinsky and Susan Lord and doctoral student/translator Melissa Noventa for a 12-day program of instruction.  We followed more or less the same program we have developed over the years with the U of Havana.  We heard on-campus presentations by a variety of scholars:  Carlos Alzugaray on Cuban international relations; Lázara Menéndez on Afro Cuban spirituality; Joaquin Borges-Triana and Rafa Escalona on contemporary Cuban music; Julio César González Pagés and Enmanual George on masculinities; Inés Rodríguez and Ramon Torriera on the Cuban literacy campaign;  Lidice Vaillant on Cuban science and solar energy research.  In addition, we saw films and had discussions with Cuban filmmakers Marilyn Solaya and Gloria Rolando; visited the agricultural project Finca Vista Hermosa; toured Old Havana with historian Gerardo Hernández Bencomo; the Museo de Bellas Artes with curator Danys Montes de Oca; the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) with instructor Osain Raggi; and visited the rehearsal space of Raises Profundo Dance Troupe (where students got an impromptu dance class).  Finally, we also had a visit with the newly appointed Canadian Ambassador Geoff Gartshore and Second Secretary Yolanda Rivas.  


Raises Profundos (Deep Roots) dance troupe invites us to crash their practice

Cuba developed its own vaccine, an impressive achievement indeed, and COVID rates are now manageable.  But the cupboards are bare, and over the past years of pandemic-related scarcities a few people associated with this course in Canada established a relationship with the Martin Luther King Centre, a long-standing Cuban NGO.  We fundraised to send medical supplies via air cargo several times.   This time we arrived with suitcases full of supplies, including a large quantity of antibiotics donated by two Canadian physicians, visited the MLK Centre to deliver them personally and learn about their work.  

The world has changed since the last time we were able to offer this course in Havana – May 2019 – and Cuba has changed considerably.  At the personal level as much as the social and political level this was not the same Havana we have worked and studied in previously.  Two beloved colleagues and friends passed last year, Lourdes Pérez Montalvo, U Havana coordinator, and Olguita Rodríquez, one of our long-time instructors.  Their absence was felt every second.  We also mourned the news of the passing Esteban Morales while we were there, a former professors we hosted in Canada.  We arrived a few days after the gas leak explosion at the historic Hotel Saratoga, which claimed 45 lives; a three-day mourning period was declared during our time there.  Scarcities of food and medicine continue to have huge repercussions for people’s daily lives.  There are intense debates about the harsh prison sentences meted out to some of those (many of whom are teenagers) who took to the streets in protest July 11, 2021.  It is obvious that authoritarian responses continue in the cultural and journalistic realms; the editor of a University of Havana publication was dismissed just before our arrival.  The country is experiencing its highest migration rates in decades.  Also, during our visit US President Joe Biden finally relaxed a few of Donald Trump’s harsh measures, improving the possibilities of Cuban family reunification.  

It was an intense couple of weeks. For most Cubans, the country is an exhausting place to live.  It can be an overwhelming place to study.  As we renewed conversations with colleagues and friends we’ve had to put on hold for the past two pandemic years, we observed an intense desire to talk. Inside and outside the classroom, we heard about what it was like to live COVID in Cuba, how quarantines affected family relations and gender-based violence for example. We also learned about the fallout from the July protests (including the inhumane prison sentences); how musicians and artists continue to challenge restrictions; how the proposed new Family Code is supporting marriage equality and other innovations; how the state is responding to financial crises; how food prices have skyrocketed.  From some, we heard optimism (often about particular research or artistic projects) from others we heard pessimism.  A comment during an informal exchange we had with a San Isidro based artist summed it up well: “I decided that with all that is going on, my resistance is to speak.”   We are grateful for the opportunity to listen.

In all of this political and social complexity, our students were intellectually and emotionally open and curious, critical and respectful. They asked impressive and insightful questions of the Cuban professors and the Canadian Ambassador—and of themselves as they continued the classroom discussions into the streets and lunch tables. The diversity of their research topics mirror the range offered by the professors: energy sovereignty, food distribution, the new economic inequities, mobilities and migration, queer spaces and gendered gazes, to name a few. We were impressed by our students academically and in terms of their care for each other and for the Cubans they encountered.

We hope this brief, intense visit becomes an actual exchange again in the future, with Cuban artists and academics returning to Canada to contribute to these discussions here.  For that to happen, Canada has to recognize the Cuban vaccine, to permit Cubans to enter Canada again.  That would be a great start.

Note: This article originally appeared on the Department of Global Development Studies website.