Cuba after Castro: Portland State students get a firsthand look

During the night of Nov. 25, 2016 Fidel Castro, Olympic gold medalist in surviving assassination attempts, died. Shortly after, 13 Portland State students arrived in Cuba for a two-week study abroad program.

This is not the first time PSU students and faculty have been to Cuba to study abroad. Even before 2014, when a gradual lifting of travel restrictions began as part of a plan to begin normalizing relations between the two countries, Vikings headed to the Caribbean as part of programs focusing on themes such as sustainability and urban development.

This most recent trip was particularly significant, however, as it offered a glimpse of Cuba in the beginning stages of transition after over a half-century of planned economy under a single party state.

Jennifer Martinez, a doctoral student in the Public Affairs and Policy program, was drawn to Cuba largely in part to see how this transition was taking place.

“You know, before going I didn’t even know they had local governments, I didn’t know what that looked like,” Martinez said. “But it turns out they do have this whole structure already set in place.”

Governance was one of the key themes of the class, along with community and contradiction. The students spent time in Havana, the colonial town of Trinidad, and also made trips to rural areas. The students met with various government officials, community groups, and non-profit organizations to get a sense of what works, what doesn’t work, and why.

Understanding Cuba also includes understanding its long and fraught relationship with the United States.

Trip coordinator Dr. Kevin Kecskes, associate professor of Public Administration in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at PSU, first became interested in Cuba after encountering Cubans while living in Nicaragua during the years following their own revolution in 1978 and ’79. Cuban advisors had been sent throughout Latin America to assist in the wave of revolutions that were inspired and often modeled after Castro’s example in Cuba.

Part of the itinerary included a trip to the Bay of Pigs, site of the failed CIA-backed invasion of Cuba in 1961, a precursor to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“I think it’s really important for us in particular, as Americans, to understand our role in that history,” Kecskes said.

The students encountered other echoes of Cold War policies that have survived until today.

“Talking with economists and people in the medical field, they really explained to you how much the embargo affects them,” Martinez said.

The U.N. General Assembly has voted over 20 times to condemn the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, and previous reports have highlighted the social costs.

“One of the students asked, because this ex-finance minister was sort of talking about the plan for Cuba in the future, and how they want to explore oil deposits off shore…well, you have a lot of sun here, why don’t you look at solar panels?” Martinez explained. “And he replies, ‘We don’t have the technology, we don’t have money, and we don’t the have the manpower to do that.”’

“What I’ve been reflecting on the most,” Martinez continued, “is that you know how here in the U.S., we’re sort of fighting for national health care or for education? Over there, that’s already given.”

She was quick to add, “There are some people who aren’t happy. A lot of people on the street have a desire, and I don’t know if that has to do with capitalism, but there was a desire to go and experience things, or travel, basic things that we have that we’ve taken for granted.”

Despite the relaxing of travel restrictions for U.S. citizens, it remains difficult to travel there. Because of the current environment, Kecskes wants prospective travelers to know that it still takes work to get to Cuba and shouldn’t be done just for fun.

“For me it has to have a really good reason,” Kecskes explained. “We’re not just going there because it’s cool.”

Before they got on the plane, each student had to choose a research focus that was relevant to their major area of study, a focus they would explore further during their time on the island.

“Why do you want to come?” Kecskes asked. “What are you really interested in? Who are you? What’s on your mind, intellectually? Not ‘I wanna go and explore the world’—which is important—I’m assuming that. But intellectually, if you’re a math major, OK—why? What about Cuba fits for you, in math, right now as you understand it?”

For anyone interested in learning more about the study abroad program in Cuba from program participants there will be a presentation on Monday, Jan. 30 from 6–7 p.m. in Parson’s Gallery, URBN 212G. Light refreshments will be provided.