Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute

Tulane University

Director of Tulane in Cuba Reflects on Fall Semester with Students and December 17th Announcement

December 22nd, 2014

Tulane in Cuba 2014 and Thoughts on December 17th

by Annie Gibson

I have been going back and forth between Cuba and the United States through my work leading students and people-to-people travel groups since the early 2000s. My first trip was in 2004. Last week I returned home to New Orleans after 4 months directing Tulane’s fall semester abroad program in Havana. It was an amazing semester, filled with the usual ups and downs of studying abroad in Cuba, a place that had loomed large in the political imaginations of students for some time. I love leading student groups to Cuba because it is always a transformative experience for all of us involved in the process. Learning to live and navigate another country is like being born again. Each semester, I arrive with a fresh group of students and I get to experience all over again the emotion of flagging down those 1953 Buicks that ride the streets as collective taxis. It’s like riding in a Flintstones cartoon with a Virgin of Charity on the dash to protect our ride. There are also important lessons that students learn about US consumer culture by being in Cuba: To be constantly reminded of the preciousness of a plastic bag or a pen. Nothing goes to waste in Cuba and basic objects that we are quick to throw in the trash in the US get to relive several reincarnations before finding their way to a trash bin in Cuba. Dealing with the complexities of working and studying there make us better people.

This year my students experienced a new landscape in Havana with the plethora of new private restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, and nightclubs that have opened since Raul’s economic reforms on the island in 2011. The experience of studying abroad in 2014 Cuba is much different from past years. My students came prepared with stories of how difficult (and rewarding) life would be in Cuba from past study abroad participants: there wouldn’t be a lot of food options, they would have a lot of free time because there just weren’t many places to go and spend money. But this semester students encountered a different Havana from that of past semesters. Access to the Internet in 2014 is better (though still horribly slow, limited and costly), exploring a diverse range of paladar restaurants and cafeterias has given Havana a diverse culinary scene, and the students seemed to discover a new night spot that had just opened as part of the new private initiatives every weekend.

While the announcement made on December 17th to reinstate diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba is momentous and wonderful, let’s also remember that this was a change that didn’t come out of the blue. Cuba has been in the process of transition for a while now. As many have noted in blogs over the last few days, the embargo has been more of a political idea rather than a completed process. Even before December 17th, US citizens were the largest tourist group visiting Cuba after Canadians. The US Interest Section in Cuba has more workers on staff than any embassy in Cuba. And often my students were surprised to discover that their Cuban counterparts at the University of Havana had seen more American movies than they had. Islands and even blockades are porous.

That being said, Americans are beginning to learn the common Cuban expression, “No es fácil.” (It’s not easy.) Let’s also be clear that for a large majority of Cubans, these changes that my students got to experience are not part of the average Cuban daily reality. The class divisions in Cuba are growing proportionately with the new industries. The people whose lives have been changing are the ones with access to capital, usually from abroad. There are tensions between new private businesses and local citizens. The average monthly salary for those people still working on a state salary is $500 CUP. And to give you some perspective, a bundle of onions at the Agrarian Cooperative when I left in December was 75 CUP. Do the math. Life in Cuba is still very hard and there are many people who can’t access the new changes that have been happening and are getting priced out of the market. Some might even say that what they fought to prevent happened anyway. But, the announcement vis-à-vis the US and Cuba is a huge step. Improvements in trade, telecommunications, travel, and embassy services have to translate to improvements for average Cubans on some level, even the ones on the bottom of the social pyramid. Those of us who have been working to support improved US-Cuba relations anxiously wait to see at what cost?

I have a lot of friends who have said to me in the past week that they hope to get to Cuba quickly before it becomes “overrun by Americans”. There is the fear that unrestrained globalization will erode away at the strange alchemy that holds the place together. To this I would hope that my students would answer after studying enough José Marti (a few of them even brought back miniature busts to help with their Cuba withdraw) that McDonalds and Starbucks aren’t close to overrunning Cuba anytime soon. There are many more pressing issues in Havana besides big Macs and Raúl has been saying it over and over again, the Cuban state is steadfast in wanting to continue with their political agenda. They have had 56 years to think up a plan about how to deal with their reentry into the global world alongside the “Octopus”. As of today, Americans still have to travel as tourists on People-to-People licenses. And, if those licenses go away in the future, Cuba may try to control numbers through entrance visas. I also think Cuba will be strategic about what US chains they let in.

I was sitting at a bookstore in Havana this fall with a student and we were approached by a young Canadian TV producer doing a TV segment on travel to Cuba for an American television audience. He was hoping to capitalize on the possibility that Cuba may open up to Americans soon. He wanted to film us showing his crew around the beach, a new paladar restaurant, and a cigar factory in Havana, “like any normal day,” he told me. Unfortunately, what is wrong with this plan is that the rules for US tourism to Cuba under OFAC prohibit going to the beach and/or to cigar factories since they don’t qualify as “exchange”. Even with the reinstating of diplomatic relations and the relaxing of the embargo, this hasn’t changed. We are still in the process of exchanging and learning from one another.

What is it that excites me about the announcement made on December 17th? The first (and this is quite self centered of me) is that organizations like Tulane will be able to open bank accounts in Cuba and vice versa. As a professor this decision will make it a lot easier for me to run a program abroad. It will also make it a lot easier for Cuban students to apply to study in the US if they want. (The US Interest Section (soon to become an embassy) has major projects in line to help Cuban students sign up for and take the TOEFL exam and the GRE to help them enroll in US Universities. Hopefully this means Tulane’s exchange program with the University of Havana can become more of an exchange and we can get Cuban students on campus. As a citizen of New Orleans, I am happy because this decision will help my local economy. Most of the rice and chicken that Cubans consume today comes out of NOLA’s Port (I bet you didn’t know that), yet all the transactions have to happen in cash. This trade should soon increase and diversify now that bank accounts can be opened on both sides. Ned Sublette has said that the blockade on Cuba was a blockade on New Orleans. It is true. Also, I am hopeful that the NOLA airport might actually begin the Charter flights to Havana that we were approved back in 2011. As an American that works in Latin America, this moment is thrilling because it will help restore a little US clout in the region. Obama’s latest term had seen US-Latin American relations on the decline, but I am sure with this move he will go down in history as a brave and important President who helped improve relations.

But the thing that I find the most exciting about this announcement is how special it is for Cuban families in the extended meaning of the term “family” that crosses borders and includes all of us adopted family members who hold Cuba dear. Read the accounts by Cubans and Cuban Americans online to know that this moment is fundamental in their family narratives and is taking us all one-step closer to healing. Learn a little bit about San Lázaro (Babalu Aye).

I don’t think change is going to happen overnight. As I mentioned earlier, Cuba has been changing a lot in the last few years and it has been a messy process that will just get messier before it gets better. But the December 17th decisions were so necessary. I want to stand in solidarity with those who cried tears of joy. There are going to be real hurdles moving forward. Anyone who has ever tried to do any work in Cuba knows what I mean. Cuban bureaucracy is a Kafkaesque machine. I met a Brazilian in Havana who was working at the Mariel Port and he said that his company (which I will not name) was on the verge of pulling out because of frustration with Cuban bureaucracy. Coming from a Brazilian, that tells you something. Mostly it tells you that changes are going to come slowly. And on Cuba’s terms. But I hope that you all will get to meet my students whose semester experiences at the University of Havana can tell you that this political move to increase diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US is a humanitarian decision. They would tell you that our world is now better off.

DR. ANNIE GIBSON is an Administrative Assistant Professor in the Department of Global Education at Tulane University. Her areas of specialization include Cuban and Brazilian performance cultures and immigration to the United States. Her first book, Post-Katrina Brazucas: Brazilians in New Orleans, was published in 2012 by UNO Press, and is an ethnographic study of the Brazilian immigrants who relocated to New Orleans during post-Katrina reconstruction. She has also published articles about Brazilian and Cuban immigration and performance in accredited academic journals such as Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, Latin American Music Review, Brasil/Brazil, and the Delaware Review of Latin American Studies. Beyond teaching a diverse range of courses in Spanish and Portuguese language, literature, and culture, Dr. Gibson administers and directs Tulane Abroad programs in Costa Rica, Cuba, and Brazil.