|Fordham students at the Monument to the Abolition of Slavery located in Matanzas, Cuba, 60 miles outside Havana.
Eleven Fordham students spent a month this summer studying in Cuba in what could prove to be the sunset of a popular summer study-abroad course. “Cultural History of Contemporary Cuba” was launched two years ago in partnership with Casa de las Américas, a premiere cultural institution in Havana, Cuba. The program allows Fordham students to explore the evolution of Cuban culture through economics, history, literature, music, art, religion and cinema. And this year, two Fordham students were in the audience for a speech by Cuban president Fidel Castro.
But under new federal travel restrictions to Cuba, which took effect June 30, academic student exchange programs must last at least 10 weeks. Shorter programs, such as Fordham’s, are prohibited, and violators are subject to fines of $4,000 per infraction.
“We were ambassadors in every sense of the word, and other students should have the opportunity to go,” said Eric Lincoln (GSE ’05), who went on this year’s trip from July 10 to Aug. 7. “It’s important for Americans to experience and understand this isolated culture. And for Cubans, it’s important to interact with people from a country they don’t know much about.”
Casa de las Américas is the most important cultural institution in Latin America, according to Arnaldo Cruz-Malave, Ph.D., associate professor of Spanish and comparative literature at Fordham, who designed the course two years ago with Luz Lenise, Ph.D., assistant dean for sophomores at FCRH. Studying there provides students with a deep understanding of the culture that would be impossible to completely grasp through course work alone.
“Students are able to see the contradictions and hardships faced by Cubans as their socialist economy becomes dollarized and turns to capitalist ventures, such as tourism to survive,” said Cruz-Malzve.
In addition to attending lectures by Cuban scholars and artists, visiting museums and viewing films, this year’s group traveled outside Havana to places such as Varadeo, an oceanfront resort that is off limits to Cubans. A Cuban national from Casa de las Américas traveling with the Fordham group had to get a special government pass to visit the resort.
“I thought our students would be in paradise, with the ocean and palm trees, but they were depressed because the Cubans have no access to it,” said Cruz-Malave. “When we returned to Havana, they wanted to discuss the dual economy in Cuba that creates such a segregated society along Cuban and non-Cuban lines.”
Attending the 26th of July Movement, an annual event commemorating the day Castro and a group of rebels attacked the Moncada army barracks in Santiago, presented other profound moments, for Lincoln, who was in the audience as Castro delivered his speech.
“Castro spent much of his speech talking about how President Bush was an alcoholic,” said Lincoln. “He quoted from books and articles, and said Bush’s years of drinking had left him with impaired judgment, and he wasn’t fit to lead. I was shocked he spent so much time talking about the U.S. and Bush on what is Cuba’s independence day.”
The travel restrictions to Cuba are part of the Bush administration’s effort to crack down on illegal travel and U.S. currency flow to Cuba. In addition to curtailing academic exchanges, the new rules reduce the number of times Cuban-Americans can visit family in Cuba from one trip a year to one every three years. If the restrictions aren’t loosened, Fordham’s Cuba exchange—and dozens of others like it—will be eliminated.
“My hope is that American universities and cultural institutions will protest the new restrictions because they go to the core of scholarly exchanges,” said Cruz-Malave. “It’s part of our academic freedom and is something we must do.”