Cuba at a Crossroads

Traveling to Cuba gives students the opportunity to observe the only socialist country in the Western Hemisphere at a crucial moment in the nation’s history. Students will witness a nation caught between its revolutionary past and an uncertain future.

The Cuban revolution that Fidel Castro launched in 1953 is sputtering. Cuba is struggling to emerge from an economic crisis that has lingered since the early 1990s. Many Cubans are eager for change and want economic and political reforms.

The U.S. government has tried for decades to topple Cuba’s socialist government. Cuba was an ally of the former Soviet Union, America’s sworn enemy. It was part of the so-called “Axis of Evil” during the George W. Bush administration.

Secretary John Kerry tours Old Havana in August 2015.
Secretary John Kerry tours Old Havana in August 2015.

President Barack Obama tried a new approach in 2015, renewing diplomatic ties with Cuba and relaxing some travel restrictions. U.S.-Cuba relations have since improved, but they are far from normal. America’s 56-year-old ban on trade with Cuba remains. U.S. government programs aimed at supporting Cuban dissidents and democracy activists also remain in place.

Critics will tell students that the socialist government is an experiment that failed, driving more than a million people into exile. Castro’s defenders will say that for whatever its faults, Cuba’s system has some merit. For instance, it has achieved higher literacy and mortality rates than many developed nations, including the United States.

Students traveling to Cuba will see that the economy is struggling. Buildings and roads are crumbling. Wages are low. The average Cuban earns just $25 a month.

Students will find out what it’s like for self-employed capitalists to live and work in a country where officials in 2002 amended the constitution to make socialism “irrevocable.” They will talk to private entrepreneurs, from food vendors and hair stylists to mobile app developers and restaurant owners. They’ll learn that Cuba has upside-down economy where luggage handlers and taxi drivers earn more than brain surgeons.

Students will also see how state-run media in Cuba dominate the airwaves even as independent journalists try to make their voices heard. They will watch as supporters and foes of the Cuban government wage a pitched battle over the island’s fate. Even now, as President Obama extends a hand in friendship, U.S. agencies are spending more than $40 million per year to undermine Cuba’s socialist government.

The State Department, the Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy have spent more than $300 million on Cuba-related democracy programs since 1996. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Radio & TV Martí, has spent another $700 million or so. That brings the total to around $1 billion spent to try to force democratic change in Cuba.

It amounts to what Fidel Castro once described as a “battle of ideas.” Some people defend the Cuban government, touting its universal health care and free schooling, while others criticize it.

Students will make up their own mind after meeting with experts and ordinary people who give their views on the culture, media, society and economy.

The U.S. Embassy in Havana.
The U.S. Embassy in Havana.

Students will also study how state-run media in Cuba cover domestic and international news events. They’ll walk the streets of Havana, where new WiFi hotspots offer Cubans a peek into the outside world. Students will discover that the Internet is expensive in Cuba: at least $2 per hour, a steep price in a county where most people earn less than $1 per day.

Students will also visit some of Cuba’s most important landmarks and cultural sights while getting acquainted with the Cuban people. People-to-people contact will give students a deep understanding and appreciation of a country that has been largely cut off from the United States for more than five decades.

Many travelers to the island are struck by Cubans’ hospitality, humanity and generosity in the face of economic difficulties and extreme material shortages.

Americans often leave Cuba with a greater appreciation for that they have back home. And whatever their feelings about socialism, they realize that there is no other nation on earth quite like Cuba.

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