From Jan. 7 to Jan. 16, 20 University of Rhode Island students traveled to Cuba with two political science professors as part of a Winter J Term class to study the history and politics of the island.

Cuba, which has captured the attention of Americans for decades, recently became even more interesting when President Barack Obama decided to restore diplomatic relations with the country, just weeks before the group left for their trip.

Professor Richard McIntyre called this timing “remarkable”. McIntyre took the students on the trip along with political science professor Maureen Moakley.

“It was very exciting for the students to be experiencing and learning about Cuba at that moment because things were really changing,” McIntyre said.

This was the first time the program ran, but McIntyre said it was a success, and they plan to run it again next winter. The course is 400 level political science credit, that included a pre trip paper about the Cuban Revolution, a pre trip discussion and a series of journals students kept. After returning the students also completed a paper about their own new perspectives on Cuba after visiting.

Courtesy: T Pickering
Courtesy: T Pickering

While on the trip, students went to lectures and met local journalists and artists to learn more about the culture and politics of the island.

“It was clearly an eye opener,” McIntyre said.  “Everybody had a really good experience, and for some people I think it was a life changer”

One of the students who went on the trip, Sarah Moffitt, agreed.

“It gave me a new perspective on traveling,” said Moffitt. “A lot of places we travel to have some kind of Western influence. In Cuba, you can’t speak English everywhere, you can’t go buy a Coca Cola whenever you want to.”

She said the trip made her let go of what she was used to and embrace the Cuban ways.

“Americans have a bias perspective, but we learned another side from talking to locals,” she said.  “They were really excited to meet us and excited for opening relations with the U.S.”

Students got to have one-on-one interactions with locals, as they stayed in “casa particulares” for some parts of the trip. The casa particulares are like bed and breakfasts’, where they lived with a local family, shared meals together and spent time with them.

Students were immersed in the local artistic culture and were able to experience a night salsa dancing in the town square with the locals.

Moffitt said that the artistic culture was her favorite part of the trip. “Everywhere you see painters and craftsmen and dancers,” she said. “It’s like a window into their culture by seeing the art and expression.”

McIntyre and Moffitt both added that a large fear is that Cuba is going to change following the new relations with the U.S. Havana, known as a time capsule into the 1950s with its old style cars and architecture, may not be preserved.

“It will bump up their income, but they want to protect it at the same time,” said Moffitt. “They have to find a balance between tourism and preserving history.”

“Our relationship with them is going to change, there are going to be more Americans visiting there, but Cuba is still a very special and different place,” McIntyre said.