Americans can’t generally travel to Cuba because of a U.S. embargo — but 10 University of Wisconsin-Parkside students spent a week in the island nation this month as part of a winter session course.
A special student and faculty travel license got them in and gave them the opportunity to learn about Cuba’s Amazon-like habitat and its Taino Indian culture, architecture and history. Students also learned the Cuban people are incredibly hospitable toward Americans despite the U.S.’s 50-year-old trade embargo, designed to weaken the communist government of Fidel and Raúl Castro, they said.
The students were welcomed into Cuban homes and got help with whatever they needed, whether it was translating words or navigating a mountain hike, they said.
“Knowing U.S. and Cuban relations, I expected them to not like us but I remember people saying, ‘We like you. It’s your government we don’t like,’ ” said Ryan Ridley, a 22-year-old Parkside senior, of Kenosha, who went on the trip. “There were posters around with Fidel and Raúl’s picture everywhere saying, ‘Keep strong in the revolution,’ (but) it just seemed like people there had their private lives and the government was just there. It wasn’t a topic of conversation unless you made it one.”
Students did talk about the government a bit on their trip, from Jan. 10-18. But mostly they talked about culture and history, they said.
Students spent the majority of their time in Baracoa, a relatively isolated city described as “second world” by Maria del Carmen Martinez, the Parkside professor who led students in Cuba.
“People farm organically with very little mechanization because of the embargo. They get around on horse-drawn carriages and horse-drawn carts and mules,” she said. “The women wash in the river out in the countryside. Everybody has a pig in their backyard and chickens running around.”
Students got a historical overview from Baracoa’s historian. They went on a walking tour with the city architect, seeing a church from 1511 that has the New World’s oldest cross. And they attended dinner gatherings with traditional music, traditional dance and even traditional foods, like ajaico, a stew, and bacán, a plantain dish, del Carmen Martinez said.
The students also climbed the El Yunque mountain, which measures about 1,900 feet high.
“Because it rains a lot there, the trails were muddy and slippery. It was hot. It was humid. But it was something you had to do, and when you got to the top, the view was well worth it,” Ridley said, describing it as a “breathtaking” sight of vivid green foliage.
He won’t forget the view anytime soon, he said, nor will he forget visiting a country you’re not “allowed” to go to.