Journey to Cuba reveals a hidden world of beauty, contradictions to USC students

HAVANA — In a joint effort between USC Annenberg and Dana and David Dornsife College, 20 USC students traveled to Havana this summer for a 10-day study of the island’s current political, economic and social conditions. (View photos, taken by student Karen Graciela Calderon.)

Students from the fields of international relations, journalism, public relations and public diplomacy were led by USC Annenberg Professor Roberto Suro and International Relations Professor Pamela Starr.

“It’s a nation that’s in (the) midst of this very dramatic process of change,” said Suro of the longtime communist country, which recently announced its desire to break a 50-year-old communication deadlock with the United States.

“It provided (the students) an opportunity to use Cuba as a case study of a transitional nation — a nation in the process of transitioning from an authoritarian regime and a state-controlled economy to whatever it’s going to be.”

For two weeks, classroom sessions were held in Los Angeles, where students were given an overview on the history of the country and its relations with the United States. The group, divided into an international relations and journalism class, was directed to examine the complex nature of the bilateral relations from varying, opposing angles.

“The course was built to wreck their preconceptions, throw a lot of points of view at them and then have very contradictory experiences on the island, where they heard all kinds of points of view - exponents of the regime and critics of it,” Suro said.

On Memorial Day weekend, the group traveled to Washington, D.C. The trip included meetings with senior government officials and political think tanks, as students worked to grasp an understanding of Cuba through the American diplomatic lens. 

Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and Congressional Staffer Carl Meachum were among those who spoke with students, who learned that the Cuban situation will continue to be a policy stalemate until extensive democratic reform is seen on the island. 

From the nation’s capital, the group flew to Miami for meetings with various anti-Castro groups and departed for Cuba the following day.

“When I first arrived in Havana I felt like I was dropped right into the middle of history,” said junior international relations student Veronica Werhane. “It was surreal to me that I was beginning a 10-day experience that few Americans will ever have.”

The group stayed in a hotel in the downtown neighborhood of Vedado, across the street from the University of Havana, which lies in close proximity to numerous night clubs, bars and Havana’s famous seawall, the Malecón. 

Without accessible telephone or Internet connection, the students were forced to dive headfirst into Cuba’s jumbled communist culture without an escape route.

“Being out of the classroom and experiencing Cuba for myself allowed me to see that Cuba is a country of contradictions,” said Werhane. “Everything from its dual-monetary system to social mobility is completely contradictory and opposite of what I've learned as an American.”

It was exactly the type of unfamiliar venture that Suro and Starr were aiming for. “That kind of experience is such an important part of intellectual growth – of learning how to question things, of saying: I don’t know what to believe,” said Suro. “What is my point of view here, how do I establish perspective?”

For most of their stay in Cuba, the group followed a rigid schedule of morning sessions at the university followed by culturally immersive excursions throughout the city. 

At the university, professors from a wide array of fields - journalism, politics, foreign relations and economics - gave private lectures, which were followed by question-and-answer periods. 

The students, who said the intense Caribbean heat and humidity made many of the three-hour sessions difficult to endure, spoke with greater enthusiasm about their field trips. 

Highlights from the list of activities included speaking with officials from Cuba’s progressive sexual-education program CENESEX and witnessing the convergence of capitalism and communism through a tour of the city’s food markets. 

“One of my favorite experiences was going to the state-run markets that sell state-grown food and the markets that sell privately-grown food,” said senior Angeli Agrawal. “It represents the ways Cuba has changed; the quality and prices at the state markets were low, but if you are willing and have money to pay for privately grown food, there is availability.” 

Students also met and exchanged perspectives with students form Havana’s Institute of International Relations, an experience that Starr said was key for the group to breach the barriers between the American and Cuban cultures.

“Being able to talk with other young people made them realize how much they have in common – everything from music and classes to finding the best, cheapest places to eat,” Starr said. “It made it easier for them to overcome the cultural legacy of mistrust on both sides.”

Apart from their course-required assignments and outings, many students found time to conduct independent research. 

Megan Sweas, who recently graduated from USC Annenberg with a master’s degree in specialized journalism, wrote a piece for Global Post concerning the state of gay rights upon the island. She said this specific foreign reporting experience taught her the importance of understanding multiple perspectives when analyzing subjects.

“It gives me confidence going forward, when I’m reporting on stories that are complicated and doing international reporting from different locations,” Sweas said. 

“I found out I’m able to report here on a very complex situation; if I can do that, what else can I do?”

Other independent subjects of study included the impact of tourism dollars upon Cuba’s growing class system, Havana’s oppressive culture of prostitution and the city’s bustling, diverse music scene.

According to the students, the 10-day trip was an exceptional opportunity that challenged them academically, physically and emotionally.

“It was the most invaluable trip to me in so many ways,” said Agrawal. “I got to see a living, breathing socialist atmosphere, and it still exists. It’s not a big, bad thing.”

Indeed, the trip pulled back the curtain on Cuba for the student travelers, Starr said.

“It opened the students’ eyes to a place that historically has been completely closed to us. They were allowed to experience a culture that had seemed foreign and mysterious, and they found out that it really wasn’t that mysterious. It’s populated by people who are like us in many ways,” she said.

Suro and Starr aim to take another group to Havana next summer. “It’s an important example of what you can gain from international study,” Suro said. “It’s learning about another country in another country, spending time with young people someplace else. It’s having all of your assumptions challenged.

“(You) don’t get many opportunities like that with students.”

Student writer Greg Asciutto was part of the USC Annenberg class that traveled to Cuba. 

Related: Find out more about studying abroad at USC Annenberg