Just ahead of Obama, SPEA students visit Havana

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre

Sixteen Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs undergraduates passed over popular spring break destinations in favor of a weeklong, one-credit public policy exploration last week in Havana, Cuba.

Students in the class pose for a group photo in Cuba.

Students in the class pose for a group photo in Cuba.

“The course is interactive, intensive and hands-on,” course professor Dan Preston said. “This involves guest lectures from academics, professionals and government officials related to health care, education and economic development, to name a few. It also seeks to allow students to see Cuban policy and systems in practice.”

Preston designed the comparative policy course in 2014 and took the first group of students to Cuba in 2015.

“The course provides students the opportunity to see how a different socioeconomic model functions as a contrast to the system of the U.S.,” Preston said. “It also helps students to appreciate and have a better understanding of Cuban culture and history.”

The students spent time at a primary school, cooperative farm, health clinic, women’s rights organization and retirement home. However, other planned visits — a briefing at the U.S. Embassy and a professional baseball game — were canceled while the country hurried to prepare for President Barack Obama’s visit just days later.

Paint fumes lingered throughout the entirety of Havana as rushed refurbishments took place, said SPEA sophomore Michelle Long. Other developments, like an increased police presence on the streets and new pavement wherever Obama’s motorcade would pass, signaled the upcoming visit and newly normalized relations.

One of Long’s favorite memories from the trip grew out of these inconveniences. Long and classmate Rob Duffy jogged through Havana. On their return route, they realized that the only way to reach the hotel was to run through recently poured tar. Duffy lost a shoe and came out with asphalt on his bare feet.

“I just remember laughing, looking around and thinking that Old Havana will never be the same,” Long said.

Beyond these tangible repairs, Preston noted a renewed excitement and optimism among both the Cuban officials and citizens.

The spring break trip to Cuba was the first trip outside the U.S. for Olivia Malone, a sophomore in SPEA.

IU sophomore Olivia Malone stands with a young girl girl she met in Cuba.

IU sophomore Olivia Malone stands with a young girl girl she met in Cuba.

“It all happened so fast and was so new that my mind was always racing to catch up with everything I was experiencing,” Malone said. “Walking around Old Havana was almost too much to take in, with all of the music and colors. It was beautiful and interesting, despite the sensory overload.”

For Long, the Cuban culture and people generally matched up to her expectations.

“Their true devotion to the Castros and Che Guevara was quite astonishing,” Long said. “I can’t begin to accurately portray the adoration and devotion among the Cuban people. Similarly, the respect citizens had for one another was what one might suspect from a communist society.”

But Long was not expecting the gaps between the American and Cuban policy lexicon.

“Understanding what Cuban officials and ministers are explaining becomes a game of comprehension,” Long said. “Key issues of assembly, protest and democracy are deeply embedded within the Cuban government and its people, but not in the same way that those from the U.S. might understand. Without an analytical understanding of these constructed definitions, you might think that the U.S. and Cuba are far more similar than they are.”

Unlike Long, Malone embarked without any expectations of what Cuba would offer.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Possibly the only thing I was expecting was the warm weather,” Malone said. “The reality of Cuba is colorful and fascinating but damaged and poor. It was a sobering contrast to see such a beautiful place in such disarray.”

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