Month: March 2015

Last Day–heading home from Havana

On our last day in Cuba we had the morning in Havana before we had to leave for the airport. This gave us all a chance to pack and do some last minute shopping. Several of the students went back to the market, and others went on a mission to buy some coffee to bring back to the states.

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The professors on the trip decided to take a walk near the hotel, where we passed the Club Capablanca, a famous chess club. Sadly, it was closed—seemingly permanently. Then we tried to find an antique car so we could take a spin down the Malecon and have a cup of coffee.

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Initially most of the cabs were occupied, but we finally ended up in a rather beat-up old green Ford. We took a ride to the old section of town, where we had a great cup of coffee while watching the activity on the local square. For our return to the hotel we hailed this stunning metallic orange ’57 Chevy convertible. It was a great way to end the trip in style.

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As a final souvenir, just before getting on the bus for the airport, I took a picture of a mural on the wall near the hotel. It traced Castro’s journey before returning to Cuba in 1958. I’ll be interested to see if it is still there when we return–perhaps in 2017.

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Bay of Pigs Museum and Trinidad

After a relaxing evening on the beach, the next morning we visited the small but interesting museum dedicated to the Bay of Pigs invasion. The tour started with a short propaganda video. Then we browsed the leftover military equipment and other relics from the invasion.

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Not surprisingly, the museum presented a rather nationalistic account of the invasion, which pitted American-backed “mercenaries” against heroic Cubans.

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After the museum we hopped back on our somewhat trusty schoolbus for the drive to Trinidad. The trip took us through more of rural Cuba, where we saw rice, sugar cane, and tropical fruit production. The bumpy roads were also dotted with occasional propaganda posters, including the most explicitly anti-American billboard that we saw on our trip.

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We arrived in Trinidad around lunch time. Trinidad is a beautiful old colonial town that was once a center of sugar production nestled in the Escambray Mountains.

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The cobblestone streets, brightly colored walls, and terra cotta tile roofs lend the city its distinctive character.

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While in Trinidad we took a tour of a home that had been owned by a family that had earned its wealth in sugar production. The house was kept in excellent condition and decorated with antique china, furniture, and art.

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We left Trinidad in the late afternoon for our long return trip to Havana. Although it took us several hours to get back, the journey was made easier by this beautiful sunset (and the Bucaneros that we picked up at a rest stop along the way).

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Santeria, Salsa, and the Bay of Pigs

On Wednesday we had our final academic lecture. The speaker was diplomat-turned-academic Dr. Carlos Alzugaray. He spoke to the students about the historic shift in U.S.-Cuban relations announced in December 2014. He also outlined some of ongoing points of contention between the two countries, including the future of Guantanamo, payments to Americans for lost property during the 1959 Revolution, and Cuba’s inclusion on the State Department list of states that sponsor terrorism. Dr. Alzugaray’s connections to the Cuban government and the timeliness of the topic made this an especially interesting lecture.

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After Dr. Alzugaray’s lecture we had a brief closing ceremony and received certificates from the Marti Center. Somewhat unexpectedly, the staff of the center asked if one of our students would say a few words about our experiences in Cuba. Sam gamely volunteered (or, more correctly, we volunteered him) and he offered a heartfelt thanks to our friends at the Marti Center.

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After the lecture we visited the Guanabacoa Museum, a museum dedicated to the practices of Santeria. The museum was off the beaten path, and it was our first time really venturing out of the city center. The museum itself did not have the impressive architecture or exhibit space of the Fine Arts Museum, but it was fascinating nonetheless. Among other things, we learned that initiates to Santeria wear all white clothing, a phenomenon we had witnessed several times around Havana.

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When we left the museum we drove back to the main part of Havana. We passed a group of Cubans gathering to commemorate the explosion of La Coubre, a ship that was bringing weapons to Cuba in 1960 that mysteriously exploded, killing almost 100 people. I was not familiar with this episode, but it occupied an important place in Cuban memories of U.S.-Cuban relations. Cubans described the explosion as another example of America’s historic efforts to protect its interests on the island. We ended our afternoon back at the Jose Marti Center with a short salsa lesson. I have some video of our lesson, but I think I will do everyone a favor and keep it under wraps. We actually did pretty well, considering the fact that none of us had any experience with salsa dancing.

On Thursday morning we all boarded a somewhat rickety school bus for a trip to Playa Giron, the beach where the Bay of Pigs invaders landed in 1961. One the way we saw–you guessed it–some old automobiles and some propaganda posters.

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We also stopped at a “nature center” where they had a crocodile (cocodrilo) breeding area. Sam paid a peso to feed the animals; you can just barely see the food in the crocodiles mouth and the wire running up to the top of the photo.

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Our hotel at Playa Giron had this nice painting on the wall. Am I the only one who thinks the guy on the bottom left in the blue shirt looks a little bit like Barack Obama? I’m not sure what to make of that.

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After several days in the city it was nice to spend some relaxing time on the beach. But our time at Playa Giron was only meant for relaxation. For our class we had read a book about the Bay of Pigs landing, so standing on the beach we could compare the information from the book with our own observations. Several students found that being at Playa Giron gave them a more complete understanding of why the mission ultimately failed.

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Of course, for some of our time on the beach we put our academic discussions to rest and simply enjoyed our surroundings.

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More Havana: Art, anti-Americanism, and Automobiles

Tuesday morning we returned to the Jose Marti Center for another lecture. It was probably our first exposure to a strict “party-line” account of U.S.-Cuban relations during the Cold War. The lecturer showed a rather one-sided Cuban documentary on American policy after Castro came to power. Students had a chance to ask questions, but the answers were long and unresponsive, and tended to repeat the points in the movie. The second lecture, unfortunately, was missing all the things that made the previous day’s lecture so good: enthusiasm, a spirit of inquiry, and respect for the audience.

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After the lecture we went to lunch. I hadn’t noticed the day before, but the restaurant had a poster showing the “Cuban Five.” One of them had apparently dined at the restaurant a couple of weeks earlier, shortly after he was released as part of the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations.

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Our next stop was the Havana Museum of Fine Arts. On the way there we passed the Jose Marti statue on the Malecon. The statue points at the U.S. Interests Section. Nearby is a memorial to Cuban victims of terrorism, particularly those Cubans alleged to have been killed in American operations. Cubans apparently demonstrate at the memorial to show their opposition to American policy, such as during the Elian Gonzalez dispute. A little further down the road we saw this mural of Che Guevara. Taken together, the lecture, the memorial, and the Che mural showed that opposition to the U.S. government is still prevalent in Cuba. Nevertheless, the personal encounters we had during the trip were almost all friendly and warm–even when people knew that we were Americans. The Cubans we spoke to often pointed out that they had problems with the American government, not the American people.

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The Museum of Fine Arts was great. Unfortunately pictures weren’t allowed in the exhibit halls, but I was able to take this photo in the courtyard. We spent most of our time looking at Cuban painting from the 20th century, many of which seemed heavily influenced by Picasso and other Cubist painters.

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After the museum we stopped at a local market. The students shopped for souvenirs, including hats and jerseys from the Havana Industriales, the local baseball team. The adults decided to go next door for a cold beverage. Then we all headed back to La Habana Vieja for some more sight-seeing–and a little bit of contemplation.

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Before heading back to our hotel we stopped to look at some of the old taxis parked near the Malecon.

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Professor Pajakowski had been hoping we’d see some Studebakers, which were manufactured in his hometown of South Bend, Indiana. We didn’t have any luck, but then he spotted a bright pink car about a hundred feet away and we walked over to take a look. There, parked away from the Chevys and Fords, was a lone Studebaker. I think Professor Pajakowski had to resist the urge to ask to take it for a spin.

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First Full Day in Cuba

By the time we arrived in Havana it was dark, so the first thing I did in the morning was look out my hotel window. This is what I saw.

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I immediately noticed the cars. I had heard about all of the old cars in Cuba, but I still never got used to seeing so many brightly colored antique (by American standards) automobiles. The other thing I noticed was the buildings. It didn’t appear like a single building had been constructed in the last forty or fifty years. The most “modern” buildings in the skyline appeared to date from the 1950s or maybe the 1960s, but not later.

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This is not to say that the city didn’t have its charm. We were only a few blocks from the ocean, and the rising sun reflected off the windows of a nearby building. Compared to Manchester, where the temperature was in the single digits, Havana was not bad!

After breakfast we all boarded a bus to head to the Center for Jose Marti Studies, our academic home during our time in Cuba. The Marti Center is located in a beautiful house where Jose Marti’s son lived. The bus ride to the Marti Center brought us along the Malecon, Havana’s seaside roadway.

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At the Marti Center, Dr. Pedro Pablo Rodriguez gave a lecture the life of Jose Marti. It was an excellent lecture, covering Spanish colonialism, Cuba’s complicated racial history, and Marti’s life and political activities. It was informative and engaging, and I’m not just saying that because Dr. Rodriguez is a fellow historian. The white board at the end of the lecture reminded me of some of the best classes that I had taken as an undergraduate.

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After the lecture we went to lunch, followed by a visit to the Jose Marti memorial. The memorial is a large tower overlooking a wide boulevard and surrounded by some of the key government buildings. Two of the nearby buildings are adorned with images of the revolutionary heroes and Castro confidantes Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.

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The inside of the memorial has ornate mosaics with quotations from Jose Marti. Unfortunately, we could not make it to the top of the tower because the elevator was out of order. Outdated or malfunctioning technology and crumbling infrastructure are, unfortunately, quite common in Cuba.

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We rounded out our first full day in Havana with a walking tour of La Habana Vieja–the old section of Havana. Here the buildings are old but architecturally impressive and full of charm. People strolled about, kids played soccer in the square, and street musicians performed for the tourists.

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We were there at just the right time of day. The setting sun cast a glow on the surroundings and the moon was visible over the historic buildings.

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Stay tuned–more to come . . . .

History class visits Cuba

Earlier this month, Professor Pajakowski and Professor Masur led a group of 12 students on a short-term study abroad program to Cuba. The trip was organized in conjunction with a course they are team-teaching this semester on the history of the Cold War. One Thing after Another asked them if they would post a recap of their experience. This is what they gave us.

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Day 1: Boston to Miami

In spite of recent improvements in U.S.-Cuban relations, flying to Havana is still a little complicated. We did not, contrary to expectations, have to fly via a third country (such as Mexico or Canada). Instead, we flew on a charter flight out of Miami. Because of some of the vagaries of charter flights (which I still don’t fully understand), that meant traveling to Miami one day before our flight to Havana and spending the night in a hotel near the airport. Although this extended our travel time, it did give us a chance to have dinner in Coconut Grove. And Professor Masur took the opportunity to show off a fetching pair of yellow trousers.

Day 2: Miami to Havana

The next day we had to arrive at Miami International Airport at 1:00 pm even though our flight didn’t leave until 5:00 pm. As a result, we got to spend a LOT of time in the Miami airport checking out the Toblerone bars in the duty free shop. We also received our visas and filled out some paperwork related to the trip. The flight itself was a very short forty-four minutes in the air. We had been warned that customs and immigration at Jose Marti International Airport might take awhile, but it actually went rather quickly. When we arrived at our hotel we were greeted with complimentary Cuba libres–our first indication of the popularity of rum in Cuba.

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Stay tuned for posts covering the rest of our visit . . . .