Nathan Bode: Sad To Be Home

Nathan Bode - Buenos dias, Wallies! No, this is not my typical blog for the class of 2016. I’m coming to you from approximately *looks out plane window* one billion feet in the air, while flying back to Cincinnati, Ohio from Miami, Florida. Before I reflect on the past week, let’s stop and take in that last sentence: Flying FROM Miami (75 degrees, sunny, beach) TO Ohio (30 degrees, cloudy, Ohio). The struggle is real.

Nathan Bode dancing in the streets of Havana

Anyways, if you’ve read the blogs of my colleagues, than you’ve got a pretty good idea of what we’ve been up to in the Caribbean. From drinking mojitos and smoking cigars to getting hustled by women in colonial outfits and participating in traditional Santeria dances, our trip to Cuba has been a whirlwind, and a fun one at that.

But mojitos, pina coladas, cuba libres, and Ron Collins aside, the trip was also an exceptional insight into what the Cuban situation is really all about. In reflection, it’s hard to believe how empty my view on the Cuban political and economic system really was without actually seeing it firsthand. Reading the books, watching the documentaries, and listening to the guest speakers in class was a great place to start, but without an actual visit to pull it all together, there are massive cracks in our understanding of what is jaded opinion and what is reality. A blessing in disguise is that even on the other side of the embargo blockade, bias also exists. By the end of the trip, our group began to discuss the growing eeriness that our Cuban experience (a government-guided experience) may have been a little too perfect. We ate at the restaurants the Cuban government wanted us to, met the people the government wanted us to meet, and basically saw the things the government wanted us to see. Suddenly it sounds like a journey a la Twilight Zone.

Enter the value of the immersion trip. Because we were able to visit Cuba, we experienced all of the bias, American and Cuban. We were able to talk to the locals and bear witness to all the sides of the story. Without observing the differences between America’s Cuba, Castro’s Cuba, and the people’s Cuba, we would never have been able to form a valuable opinion on the situation for ourselves (aka “Thinking Critically”). Because of this trip, I will able to tell my family that no, the Cubans didn’t try to kill us when we got there. And I will be able to tell my classmates that the genuine warmth and kindness of the Cuban people is something the American people could afford to emulate. But I will also be able to acknowledge through first-hand experience the ability of a Communist government to shape almost every aspect of life in the way it sees fit.

The bottom line is that cultural studies in the classroom are like chemical equations in a textbook; they are helpful, but the real value comes when you get your hands a little dirty and can see what happens in the real world.

I wish I could say it was good to be back.

John Kennedy: A Cuban American Visits Cuba

John Kennedy - As I sit on the American Airlines regional jet cruising at 37,000 feet, headed towards home, I reflect on the week long journey which has just taken place. This past week has been one of the greatest and most informative times of my life. The food, people and places have all been phenomenal and I am thankful for the opportunity Wabash has provided to me to participate in this excursion.

John Kennedy chats with Professor Rogers at the University of Havana.

As a Cuban-American, it was interesting to see the places which my abuelos and aunts and aunt and uncle were able to see when they were children. I was able to experience the culture of my heritage, which growing up in Indianapolis, was neglected. This trip gave me an overall pride in my Cuban heritage, which I am sure will please my Cuba-loving mother.

The time spent in Cuba was incredibly educational and eye opening. We were able to prove and disprove American stereotypes of the island. Growing up, I always envisioned that Havana was defined by old 1950’s American cars and soldiers patrolling the area. The old cars due exist in great quantities and are incredibly beautiful to see. My stereotype about the soldiers was disproved as there were not many soldiers patrolling the city of Havana. The only major places where they were stationed would be guarding the ministry buildings, a massive obelisk monument to Martí and the Granma.

For many on this trip, it was their first time in a foreign nation, let alone a nation to which the United States lacks diplomatic relations with. Those who have not flown in an aircraft or experienced airport security, are now professionals at it, having flown four times since last Sunday. We have come to relish the warm weather of both Cuba and Florida, 750F is much better than the 420F which our destination is predicted to be at touchdown.

El Castile de Morro

The group which I have had the privilege to travel with for the past week is an outstanding group of 16 Wabash gentlemen. I truly believe that only schools like Wabash would be able to do this type of trip. All on the trip acted maturely and responsibly at all times during the course of this journey. My favorite moment of this entire journey happened the first night in Cuba. Our guide William (who in hind sight was quite censored by the Cuban government) led us to El Castile de Morro, a massive Spanish fort guarding the entrance to the Port of Havana. I found it phenomenal how insanely well kept the fort was, despite the Cuban government not possessing a large amount of money. As the child of two military parents and sibling to a future Naval Academy midshipmen, forts have always fascinated me. They are the true combination of where army meets navy (with the exception of beach landings and the annual Army- Navy football game). The architecture of the fort was mind blowing, and in particular, the gatehouses were the most pristine I have ever seen.

Reflecting back on the experience on the island, it is easy to see why foreigners fall in love with this country. In Cuba, it is possible for people to get whatever they wish, in the words of a Canadian tourist I met, “Cuba has lovely scenery, beautiful women and alcohol everywhere.” This being said, there still is a gross disappointment that I was not able to experience the world of the average Cuban, the world like people such as my great uncle experience on a day to day basis. As students, we only got a small taste of what life for the average Cuban is throughout the entire trip. We were able to witness several blackouts as we traveled away from Havana one night to meet with members from the CDR or Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. That night, even with there being blackouts all around, we were treated like royalty. In particular, that night was my birthday and I received the best birthday present ever, a one hour long dance show from the children of the neighborhood.

In Miami, we were able to see the lives of those who immigrated to the United States since the time of the revolution. There, we were truly able to experience a variety of Cuban cuisine (in Cuba, food shortages are common, making some food hard to come by). Whereas for a majority of the group, this cuisine was new, for me it was not. I was in Cuban food heaven and loved every moment of it. I literally ate several meals until I was physically unable to eat anymore. Upon hearing that we had just traveled to Cuba, the Cubans in Miami were more than eager to tell us their reasons for leaving and ask us about our experience in their homeland.

Tim Padgett talks with the students at the WLRN Studios.

We had the honor of meeting Jaime Sushlicki and Tim Padgett in Miami to discuss our trip and what we had learned. It was excellent to get the opinion of a Jewish Cuban immigrant (Jaime) on his thoughts about the Cuban government and Cuba. Even though he has been in the United States since 1960, he still worries about the nation of his birth and is concerned that Cuba will turn into a resort nation when US-Cuban relations are restored. Tim Padgett was the final person we met with and it was excellent to get the opinion from a writer from the Time Magazine. This allowed for the trip to go “full circle” and provided a phenomenal experience for us all.

After spending one final day in Miami looking at the Jewish influence on both Miami and Havana, we began to realize that our time was limited and we would soon have to return home to Indiana. Staring out my window on the plane into the abyss that is the sky, I encourage all those who have the opportunity to go to Cuba to go with an open mind and not as a tourist to enjoy the sights but to look in depth to where they are and truly appreciate the people, the wonderful people who are on that tiny island just south of Florida.

As I conclude this blog, I begin to feel sad. My experience is over and I may never return to that island. How I loved that island and how I was able to better understand both myself and the world around me. Finally, I would like to dedicate this blog to my abuelo, Roberto Gonzalez who left his beloved Cuba in 1963, never to return and to all those who leave their homeland never to see it again.

Kalp Juthani Reflects on Cuban Paradox

Kalp Juthani - Miami Beach has given us time to reflect on our experiences. I feel that this post should cover some of the thoughts that I have developed on the Cuban Generation Y. I must start off by saying that the trip was far from anything I could have ever imagined. It has significantly changed the way I think about culture, as well as, many of the perceptions that I had prior to the trip. I would like to thank our professors along with everyone in Havana and Miami that made this learning opportunity possible.

Influence from free markets has led to an emerging generational gap in Cuba. We saw fragments of free markets in Paladores or private restaurants as well as in the growing black market. These new opportunities are quickly changing Cuba, show that efforts towards nationalizing the Cuban economy have faded, and that the new generation seeks better lifestyles. I began to find this theme after speaking to our tour guide, William. As a staunch supporter of the Revolution, William aspired to help the socialist cause. Despite his canned responses and dismissal of a few of our pertinent questions, he really opened up to me about his personal life when talking about his family. His daughter belonged to a new wave of Cubans that desired the opportunity found outside of Havana. Through his example, I began to develop a sense of the impact that this divide has on everyday people, as well as, predictions on the direction that the nation is heading.

Students watch children dance in the streets of Havana as part of a CDR event.

We encountered a greater generational divide at a Comités de Defensa de la Revolución (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution or CDR) meeting. We drove through dark alleys on the outskirts of Havana and realized that we were far beyond the confounds of central parts of the city. We saw shadows of run down colonial architecture and ancient cars as we approached our destination. We were excited about finally leaving the splendor of Vedado, escaping sites reserved for tourists, and seeing the “real Cuba” that we had seeked since arriving. After driving through villages that were without power, we arrived to the brightly lit village of San Miguel de Pardon. We were greeted by warm locals and a crowd of cheering children. It was immediately clear that they had been preparing for our visit for quite sometime. We saw a gigantic Cuban flag and 17 seats set for their American visitors. Not only were we anxious for what we thought would be a meeting but we also felt their anxiety as they opened their homes to us hoping that we would be pleased with their hospitality. We were greeted with a welcome speech explaining the role of the CDR in San Miguel de Padrón. They shouted “Viva Fidel. Viva Raul. Viva la Revolución” after the speech showing a commitment to the 50 year old cause.

Kalp Junthani photographs an obelisk in Revolution Square

Rather than the forum on issues in the village (including poverty) as all of us had expected, we experienced a side of their vibrant culture. We were amazed by the choreographed dances that had been prepared for us. It was not until a later reflection in Miami of our best experience in Cuba that we realized the hidden agenda. William informed us that is was normal for meetings to have such fanfare. As Wabash men, we thought critically about the information that we had received. We learned a lot more from our interactions and observations with the village children. I noticed a few Cuban teenagers around us filming the choreography with their American smartphones. This CDR meeting was clearly a special event. I also learned by speaking to a 12 year old that his favorite “equipo de béisbol” was the Yankees. He admired American players and aspired to become like them. Patrick Bryant ’16 handed me a piece of candy he had found which I then preceded to give to a young girl standing next to me. After looking away to watch the children dance, Adam Alexander ’16 went on to notice that our small act filled the girl with excitement and caused her to tell those around her that we were friendly people. There were countless interactions that evening that showed a new generation of Cubans, wanting a taste of the American dream.

Our time in Miami revealed similar themes. We met with Tim Padget ’84 at WRLN studios. Through his experience as a journalist, we learned that Cuban-Americans carry a sentiment towards the expropriations of Cuba following the Revolution. The new generations no longer carry this sentiment with a new poll finding that 50% of the Cuban-American population wanting an end to the embargo. He was almost as excited to see us and learn from us as we were from him. Our discussion helped to explore the government’s agenda and the interactions that truly give an idea as to where Cuba is heading.

As our time in Miami ends, it is easy to forget that the hardships faced by Cubans on a daily basis are a reality. They are some of the friendliest people in the world, and I hope that this next generation of Cubans and Americans lead to an era of progress.

Korbin West on the Beauty of our Trip

Korbin West – As I walked out of our hotel for our last full day, I realized this was our last opportunity to absorb some of the beauty of our trip. I have already experienced some of the most amazing views so far in the trip, such as the great palaces of Batista or the desolate slums that many Cubans suffer in every day. However, I quickly learned that Miami also has some amazing buildings and styles unlike anything else I’ve seen. Miami Beach was built with foundations of Art Deco and Modernistic architecture integrated into every shop, hotel, and restaurant.

The Jewish Museum of Florida

One fine example of Miami’s architecture was the museum we visited, the Jewish Museum of Florida. Simply put, it was an awe-inspiring building. As I walked in, I was greeted by a spacious room, filled with the calming light from the stained glass and large, decadent chandeliers. On every wall hung Jewish artifacts that the museum has spent over a decade collecting and artifacts as old as over 250 years old. The museum was a classic example of the Art Deco style (a type of architecture dedicated to a luxurious and futuristic look), with an emphasis on symmetry, great columns, overarching ceiling, and ornate decorations. The building was so committed to its architectural style that it had to cut off half of the Jewish Star of David to retain its symmetry. As I walked out of the museum, it only became more apparent that the city was filled with pronounced architectural masterpieces.

Bacardi Building

While just looking for a place to eat, I came across a few more of Miami’s great pieces of design. The Colony Hotel with its large curved concrete foundations and use of neon lights give off a feel for the space age. The Bacardi Building, a uniquely, abstract structure, brightly decorated with countless colors. Even buildings like the Post Office or the Police Station come with their own sense of style and luxury. These futuristic looking offices separate from the pack, as just about every Post Office or Police Station I have seen has been dreary and dull. Their inclusion into Miami Beach’s unique style just further illustrates how in Miami, even the most ordinary can be extraordinary.

Lastly, one cannot speak of Miami Beach’s splendor without mention of its luxurious beaches. On Ocean Avenue, right across the streets from some of the wondrous buildings I mentioned above, was the ocean. Even in late-November, the sun, sand, and sea were as grand as ever. The sea was a deep blue-green, with its waves washing up and down the shore for miles. I could see the glimmer of cruise ships, enjoying the warmest winter breeze I have ever felt. For the first time in our adventure-packed trip, I was able to just lay down and let the beauty wash over me, literally.

Our trip has been filled to the brim with experiences I will never forget. Whether it be the music and dance from the Cuban towns, the feeling of the 1950’s in downtown Havana, or the breath-taking views everywhere I look, I will always be thankful for the time I took to just stop and soak up the beauty of our world.

Ben Finley on Cuba’s Exiles

Ben Finley – Our first full day in Miami was inaugurated by a trip to Little Havana, a historically Cuban community. Still trying to fully appreciate my experience in Havana I was not expecting the same level of learning and engagement on a weekday morning in an old neighborhood. I was promptly proved wrong.

Ben Finley in an art museum in Havana, Cuba

Little Havana was marked with statues stating “No aceptamos ayuda de nadie” (We don’t accept help from anyone). This message appeared on statues in the middle of Little Havana. The final mural we came upon was of the Virgin Mary above a sea with three fisherman. As we had learned the day before this image of the Virgin bears a strong resemblance with one of the main Orishas (gods and goddesses) of the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria. We finished up with the formal tour of the area, then we were free to roam and seek out some much anticipated breakfast.

After a short walk a friend and I happened upon a local diner, where we met Ray. Ray was a Cuban immigrant who had come to the United States during Operation Peter Pan, which brought many Cuban children to Miami in the early 1960s. He commented on how his ranch had been taken by the government and had lived in the US for eight years before his parents were able to make it out of Cuba. We had learned about both Operation Peter Pan and the nationalization of large properties earlier in the semester, but it was so much more powerful to hear from a man whose life was shaped by both.

Lunch in Little Havana in Miami.

Ray went on to tell us (in a surprisingly calm tone) how his farm had been engineered to be essentially self-sufficient with a series of pastures for rotated grazing patterns and wind mills to provide water for each of the different cattle enclosures. The revolutionaries seized the farm, killed the cows, and cut the hardwood trees for lumber, which ended up being left to rot. He was raised by his older sister who was almost eighteen when they moved to the United States. As he put it, he was a man by the time his parents had joined him in the US. It was overwhelmingly emotional to be reunited, but he realized that he had grown into an adult learning his lessons without the benefit of parental guidance. This was a sobering perspective of how the subject matter of our class had affected actual individuals.

The educational opportunities of Miami came unexpectedly early as we were cruising for some breakfast and happened upon Ray, who complimented our eye for good breakfast joints. Having been immersed in the Cuban perspective for the past few days, the glow of Cuba’s charm began to fade as I learned about the lives of those who had been affected by the revolution and subsequent exodus.

John Decker: Cubans in America

John Decker – After three exciting days in Havana, we returned to Miami on Thanksgiving. Dr. Hollander’s parents were kind enough to provide lots of food and laughs. Friday marked our most significant day in Miami, as we debriefed our experiences with Cuban-American Jaime Suchlicki and Wabash alumnus Tim Padgett.

Jaime Shuchlicki

We met with Mr. Suchlicki at the Bacardi Center for Cuban American Studies, located at the University of Miami. Suchlicki is one of the most learned scholars when it comes to Cuban American studies, as he is Cuban born and is very close with the Cuban American population in Miami. As a group, we had an open forum with Suchlicki recapping our experiences in Cuba.

Suchlicki, a supporter of the embargo (or “the American blockade,” depending on who you ask), was very candid in his answers to our questions. He believed that the reopening of Cuba after 50+ years would not benefit Cuban society, because the influx of Americans (mostly via tourism), would not change the governmental structure of Cuba in any way. While I tend to disagree, I believe Suchlicki’s perspective was beneficial. He argued that if Americans were allowed to freely travel to Cuba (like Canadians and Europeans), they would have no significant impact on Cuban society.

Instead, Suchlicki argued, Americans would be much more interested in smoking Cohibas (Cuban cigars, which are excellent), drinking rum, and enjoying tourist destinations in Havana along the beautiful Cuban coastline. Suchlicki’s point of view, while extreme, provided us with another interesting perspective on Cuban politics.

Tim Padgett ’84

Later in the day, we met with Tim Padgett ’84, a prominent Wabash alumnus. Mr. Padgett had heaps of experience traveling to Latin America as a journalist for Time Magazine. Padgett debriefed us and allowed us to lead discussion, even jotting down our ideas on a notepad while we discussed. It was a great experience. Padgett, unlike Suchlicki, believed that the lifting of the embargo would not harm Cuba, but would help the Cuban society. He claimed that the influx of American tourists would certainly provide a necessary boost to the economy, but would also offer a catalyst to changing Cuban society as whole. Unlike European or Canadian tourists, Americans would be much more interested in exchanging ideas with the locals, mingling in all parts of Havana, not just the resorts, as Suchlicki argued.

John Decker and his classmates wait for security to admit them to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, a heavily guarded and gated facility.

The embargo, according to Padgett, benefitted the Castro regime, as the Cuban government could always point the finger of blame at the United States. If the embargo was lifted, Raul Castro could no longer place the blame on the big bully from the north. With the United States eliminated as a scapegoat, the Cuban people would surely realize that the Castro regime, not the United States, was inherently part of the problem in Cuba. In short, our Friday in Miami provided us with two uniquely diverse perspectives. I found both talks incredibly interesting and useful for our discussions.

We were very fortunate to not only meet with Suchlicki, but also Padgett, as both men are prominent scholars on Cuba/United States relations. Personally, I believed the reopening of Cuba would be a benefit to not only the United States but also Cuba and the Cuban people. The embargo will be lifted, it’s just a matter of when.

Dylan Miller from Havana

Dylan Miller poses in Revolution Square

Dylan Miller – Our third day in Havana, Cuba proved just as busy and fun as the first two days. To begin the day, the happily exhausted yet eager group loaded into our bus with our tour guide, William. Our first stop of the day was La Plaza de la Revolución. In the square, a giant metal visage of Ché Guevara plastered on the side of Ministry of the Interior building immediately caught my eye. Underneath Ché’s face are the powerful words “Hasta la victoria siempre” which translates to “Always until victory.”

The inescapable images of Ché as well as the powerful and patriotic quotes that paint the city of Havana add to the iconic status of Ché and use rhetoric to keep the ideas of the Revolution in the minds of all Cubans. This fascinating and highly analyzable phenomenon in Cuba became a reoccurring theme throughout the trip and occupied a lot of my thoughts.

After La Plaza de la Revolución, we headed to El Museo de la Revolución (The Museum of the Revolution). Outside of the museum, the tank that Fidel Castro personally used during the Revolution was proudly displayed. The museum was once the Presidential Palace during the regime of the dictator Fulgencio Batista before Castro came to power. Just as graffiti, propaganda, and constant references to Ché, Fidel, and the Revolution run rampant throughout the city, so too does it run throughout the museum. One of the museums proudest piece is the Granma, the yacht that Fidel himself rode over to Cuba from Mexico during the Revolution. Again, like La Plaza de la Revolución, Cuban nationalism and sentiment of the Revolution are the most apparent aspects of the culture.

Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP)

From the museum, we visited the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP). There we were greeted and briefed by a representative of ICAP. The ICAP representative explained to us that ICAP is an organization that works with the international community in order to form friendship through non-diplomatic means. After receiving an overview of the organization’s work and mission, we had a question and answer session. The meeting was interesting to say the least. It quickly became apparent that the representative of ICAP had an obvious interest and bias to protect. ICAP being a government organization (as most businesses and organizations in Cuba are) strongly defended the Cuban ideals such as blaming the embargo (or “blockade” as Cubans refer to it) for the low access to medication which is a common misconception that is promoted through governmental propaganda. It was this particular meeting that put not only the rest of our time in Havana but also our previous time in Havana completely in perspective. We started to notice the small but still significant effects of a communistic government.

Our last activity of our third day in Havana was a tour of Havana Vieja (Old Havana). From the moment we stepped off of the bus, we encountered another one of the effects of communism in Cuba. Many Cubans pick up second “jobs” in order to make up for the barely-enough sustenance the government supplies. We experienced first-hand one of these second “jobs” when we were approached by four Cuban women dressed in colonial period dresses and heavily-applied lipstick.

William warned: “Don’t think you’ve suddenly become Leonardo DeCaprio

These four women came up to us, kissed us on the cheek as we took pictures, and then immediately after the photo was snapped they demanded money. Haggling, negotiating, and straight-up insisting led to some people in our group to fork out 20 CUCs (the convertible currency in Cuba used by tourists) a piece for a smooch and a picture. Those 20 CUCs that those women made in a matter of minutes greatly surpassed the average Cuban salary of about $20 per month. After the initial cultural shock, humor, and even downright frustration of losing 20 CUCs from the situation, we realized how communism was actually practiced in Cuba. This moment is when I personally began to understand certain political and economic policies that we have studied plenty in class but now had witnessed the results first hand. This, to me, is what immersion learning is all about.

Matt Binder on Cuba’s CDR

Matt Binder – As part of our Cuban Politics and Culture class with Dr. Hollander, my classmates and I learned about and discussed the competing stories that Cubans on the island tell and Cuban-American exiles in Miami disseminate. We came to Cuba and Miami to see for ourselves what the true story is. What I did not expect was to find that I could see my own experiences fitting into both sides, that even within our own travels I could struggle to know what my experiences meant. I can point to one poignant example from this past Tuesday night.

Children dance to entertain Wabash students during a CDR meeting.

The Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) was founded in Cuba in the early 1960s as a sort of neighborhood watch to keep an eye on Cubans within their own communities. It is a network of several million Cubans, with different sections of the Committee in different areas of Cuba. Through our tour guide in Cuba, we were able to arrange to attend a meeting of the CDR. Since we heard about this meeting, most of the students in my class, including myself, expected a formal meeting of ideologues wearing military fatigues and spouting communist propaganda. However, we were quickly disabused of these notions when we got off our bus and walked down the street to discover a large Cuban flag hung up across the street and several hundred people, many of them young children, greeting us excitedly.

Since it was raining, a woman ushered us into her home where the leader of the local CDR, a woman in a simple t-shirt, read us a letter welcoming us to the community and articulating Cuba’s desire for good relations with the United States. She then proceeded to lead us outside where seats had been set up for us in the street. We were told to sit down and then enjoyed a nearly two-hour block party of the neighborhood children entertaining us with their exceptional dance skills and even handing each of us a flower as we departed. Everyone in the town seemed to enjoy our company sincerely, and we likewise enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Our guide informed us that the CDR frequently organizes such events and suggested that its principal purpose is a social one. The entire bus ride back to the hotel, we all could not stop talking about how impressed we were with our welcome and how unexpected it had all been.

The author poses for a photo in Cuba.

Of course, the longer we thought about it, the more it seemed suspicious that the entire event had been so prepared. We wondered if a true CDR meeting was usually such an event. As those ideas festered in our minds, we returned to Miami, where we talked with Jaime Suchlicki, a professor at the University of Miami who represents the views of many in the Cuban-American exile community, and Tim Padgett, a Wabash alumnus who currently reports on Cuban-American relations. In our conversations with these people, it became more apparent that our entire tour of Havana had been fairly well scripted for us. Padgett told us he was glad we had witnessed the way the Cuban regime wants to portray Cuba to visitors. His statement really got me thinking critically about just how genuine our experience had been. Sure, the neighborhood seemed glad to host us, but nothing about that night was spontaneous and it had seemed rather artificial.

This experience has given me an excellent chance to apply my Wabash critical thinking skills to the real world. I simply cannot take anyone’s word about what exactly my CDR visit meant or even how organic it was. I have to decide for myself, and the more I analyze it now, the more my thoughts on it develop. This immersion trip was vital for me to understand this part of the Cuban situation. This particular international relationship is highly complicated, and the fact that few Americans have the chance to view it first-hand only makes it murkier. I believe that while my CDR experience was obviously scripted, the Cubans we met showed genuine warmth toward us and clearly use the committee to socialize. However, I can’t possibly know that from a book and understanding that fact in itself takes critical thinking.

Patrick Bryant on Cuba’s Simple Gifts

Patrick Bryant – I have the privilege of writing a Thanksgiving Day blog post for the second consecutive year. Last year I wrote my piece in Grantham, England, nursing a full stomach from the great meal prepared by our kind hosts at Harlixton College. Today, I write to you from Miami Beach, Florida, nursing a full stomach after receiving the great hospitality of Mr. and Mrs. Howard Hollander, parents of Professor Ethan Hollander. Today we reluctantly returned to the U.S. after spending three days in a country that stimulated our senses, in some ways challenged our beliefs, and in other ways affirmed them. Our view on history, comparative politics, the bias of Cubans and those sympathetic with the Communist party has been tremendously affected in the past view days. On the surface it sounds like brainwashing, but in truth, the effect occurs when we as students act as deliberate, thoughtful observers of the people we meet, the things we see, and the conversations we have.

Wabash students learn about Afro-Cuban art, religion, and culture

As one of our last stops before returning to Havana’s José Martí International Airport, named for the 19th century Cuban who is regarded as the national hero, we had the opportunity to visit a street in a poorer part of Havana that was known as the epicenter of the Santería religion. It’s best described as a mixture of Catholicism and appreciation for the saints, mixed with the more tribal, African-influenced voodoo religions. We had the opportunity to look at some paintings done by a local artist in that neighborhood who had led a number of community-minded art projects in this particular area of Havana. Along with more talk on the sorts of gods and goddesses and energies of Santería, we viewed a dance and traditional singing and percussion concert. These kinds of first-hand interactions, and the ability to be immersed in the Cuban culture made it very difficult to not find a way to miss this afternoon’s plane back to Miami.

Patrick Bryant questions Jaime Suchlicki

Though I mentioned it earlier, I want to again express my thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Hollander, for hosting myself and 13 of my friends and classmates for Thanksgiving dinner. This great American holiday overlaps with the great Jewish holiday of Hannukah for the first time in 700 years and for the last time in the next 70,000 years because it is observed in relation to the lunar calendar. On behalf of my classmates, thank you Mr. and Mrs. Hollander for making our Thanksgiving a very special one

Professor Hollander has gone to great lengths to make this class as much of the learning experience at it has been. Furthermore, he’s gone to great lengths to ensure that the ways in which we have been immersed in the Cuban political system and culture have been so fruitful. As some of my classmates have described in blog posts prior to this one, we as student travelers have had opportunities to see the political system (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, interactions with the U.S. Interest Section, etc.), but we’ve also experienced first-hand the sorts of ebbs and flows in Cuban culture and the sorts of concessions and rickety infrastructure that have presented itself since the groundwork was laid in 1959. This blog serves as a transition of sorts now that we prepare to spend our remaining days in Miami, looking at the embargo on Cuba and the system that exists under Fidel and Raúl Castro through a very different lens. Thank you, Dr. Hollander, for your efforts in organizing this effort.

I would also be remiss to not thank Dr. Dan Rogers and Mr. Jim Amidon for their guidance and administrative efforts these past few days. They’ve made travel for an American in communist Cuba seem almost seamless and I admire them for that. I’d also like to thank the alumni and friends of the College who make such travel possible. Often this time of year we as students can be found complaining about the papers and exams that await us in the coming weeks, but on a day of gratitude, we must thank the men who took those same exams and wrote those same papers, but through their generosity, allowed us a greater more wholesome form of education. All is on us to thank them and follow their example

If you noticed my title, and my reference to Cuba’s “simple gifts,” you may recall the name from President Hess’ inauguration earlier this semester. That message and theme has transcended country, transcended climate, and transcended political ideology. As some of my classmates have described to you, our greatest memories can be found in the local people we met and conversed with. We appreciate those very simple, yet fruitful gifts. Likewise, as we broke bread with the Hollander’s last night, what a joyous thing it was to enjoy the simple gifts of fellowship and friendship.

We wish you and your family a very Happy Thanksgiving and a joyful holiday season.

Adam Alexander on Meyer Lansky’s Hotel

Adam Alexander - Since yesterday’s blogs were written, we had an awesome experience in the Hotel Riviera at night. A hotel worker named Alejandro, my friend (he found my suitcase after it had been temporarily lost), took a few of us Wabash students to the back of the hotel so that we could explore it a bit. We found that not only could the elevator not send guests to the first ten floors, but not even the staircases could take us to those floors – they had been padlocked shut. Given the fascinating history of the Hotel – started by the mafia and visited by my favorite singer, Frank Sinatra – we thought it would be neat to see some of the floors that haven’t been used by Castro’s government. But it seems like those floors have been locked away, keeping their history within them.

Meyer Lansky’s Riviera Hotel in Havana

Alejandro spent the rest of the night talking to us about the history of the hotel, and showing us where the mafia’s casino was. What we first thought was a bar, we later came to agreement with Professor Hollander was the exchange where gamblers could buy chips. We could still see the original carpet and furniture from 1958. I later went outside with a couple of classmates to explore, but we were starting to be approached by a couple of prostitutes, so we immediately walked in the opposite direction. This led us to Meyer Lansky’s pool, which we explored until we were removed by a hotel guard. We were also able to pick up sand and seashells blown in by the massive cold front distorting the Cuban weather.

Adam Alexander photographs a dancer

Today, we said goodbye to Cuba. First, we watched a performance in a local artistic alley and danced as a group with Cuban Santería goddesses. The airport was extremely slow; socialism’s inefficiencies revealed themselves. We eventually left though, and made it safely back to the United States. My experience with Customs consisted of a pop quiz of the OFAC regulations I had first read in August. My answers satisfied the customs agent; he asked me if I had brought any alcohol or tobacco with me, and my answer of “no” won me a ticket back to freedom and capitalism.

This evening, we celebrated Thanksgiving with Professor Hollander’s parents in his childhood home. Although I heard some worries from my classmates, Mr. and Mrs. Hollander came prepared for 14 hungry college men. After we finished our meal, Mrs. Hollander alerted us that there was a second turkey which had not been touched. But with all of the other delicious food that had been provided to us, we were unable to finish off the second turkey. While I was sad to miss Thanksgiving with my family for the first time, I could not have spent it with a better group of men.

Getting to spend Thanksgiving Day in both Cuba and the United States provides an interesting perspective on the holiday. Perhaps most obviously, I am thankful for having the opportunity to attend Wabash and to go to Cuba with my fellow students. But this is not the only thought I have on the matter; going from Cuba to the United States on Thanksgiving Day has shown me how lucky I really am. We have so much to be thankful for as Americans. People in Cuba will do anything to earn just a dollar or two, so that they can feed their children. When the average salary is about $30 per month, people become desperate. But we don’t have much of that in the United States. We are lucky enough to live in a country where most people can live without begging tourists for money. The welfare of the American people certainly is not perfect, but it is far and above that of the Cuban people. And for that, all Americans should be thankful.

I will leave you with a quote from a Cuban to ponder, as I have been doing: “Don’t try to understand my country. Just enjoy it.”