During spring break 2017 OU made an inaugural trip to Cuba, where fifteen students earned credit for the class, “The Exceptional Island: Cuban Culture and Politics.” Through this study, travelers learned about the history, culture and politics of Cuba; contemporary life in Cuba; and current religious revitalization trends. Leading the group were Dr. Charles Kenney, Associate Professor of Political Science at OU, and Dr. Katherine Hirschfeld, Associate Professor of Anthropology.
Prior to the trip, recent OU grad Michael Redzich, a Letters/Constitutional Studies and Spanish major, said he looked forward to meeting and speaking with the Cuban people, as well as experiencing the country in person.
“I was instantly interested in this program when I became aware of it,” Michael said. “Cuba has it all. Thoroughly unique politics and culture? Check. An incredibly beautiful part of the world? Check. A chance to practice my Spanish? Check. In my view, it offers all of the unique opportunities that I could ever hope for from a study abroad program.”
Having lived in Buenos Aires for two years, Michael developed great interest in and appreciation for Latin America, but did not think of Cuba as a realistic travel destination for him — until this study abroad option appeared. Following is his personal reflection on this experience.
“This course was aptly named — the place, the people and the perspective gained were all exceptional. We not only saw a different country, but a different way of life.
We snorkeled in the Bay of Pigs and stood in the very room where the pre-revolutionary dictator, Fulgencio Batista, had fled on New Year’s Eve 1958. We walked down streets that in many respects remained frozen in time, each crumbling facade a reminder of the crushing weight of history. We became friends with average Cubans and found that despite decades of rhetoric, we are not all that different. Looking out from La Cabaña, an 18th-century Spanish fortress that once guarded Havana and later served as a headquarters for Che Guevara, [an Argentine Marxist revolutionary involved with Fidel Castro’s movement to overthrow the government.] We realized that these were moments not to be forgotten.
Of course, salsa and son music were certainly a high point. The food was terrific and the weather unseasonably temperate. We were all given pause, of course, when Dr. Charlie Kenney asked us to reflect upon the destitute circumstances that many Cubans face today. What may be an island paradise for some is a setting of subsistence for others.
Dr. Hirschfeld commented that when in Cuba, it is hard to imagine life outside of it; when outside of Cuba, it is difficult to describe life there. It is a place, but more importantly a people unlike any other. The glorious triumphs and dark failures of the past seemed to be as much upon the air as the mist breaking against the seawall. As I looked out over that sea, I remembered my parents telling me about the Cuban missile crisis, the Cold War and their belief that we would never be able to set foot in Cuba. Fortunately, we could; [to travel] there now is to a witness a fulcrum point in history and to feel the weight of the past resisting the magnetism of the future.
Our lectures were fantastic. We received instruction in a home belonging to the family of the great leader of the Cuban war for independence, José Martí. Nevertheless, it is not so much that we learned about Cuba’s history; by merely being there, we lived it. All who participated were immensely grateful for this opportunity, and we hope to see greater exchange between our countries and universities in the near future.”