Despite a hostile political history and sometimes strained relationship with the United States, Cuba still offers University of Alabama professors and students opportunities that emphasize collaboration for study and research.
Currently, the University provides opportunities in the fields of Spanish language and culture, book arts, archaeology, biology, theatre, psychology and others.
Michael Schnepf, Spanish professor and director of the UA in Cuba study abroad program, said spending time in Cuba is a beneficial experience for students to be exposed to an impoverished country that has been historically closed off from the United States.
“Students get to see how a country so close to us, only 90 miles away, is such a different world. It’s like it’s trapped in the 1950s, and the students get to see that,” Schnepf said. “Students get to see what it is to not have a lot of money, to really be scraping by and yet still be happy.”
Despite the animosities on a federal level, the Cuban people are more than welcoming to students and professors who work there, Schnepf said.
“It’s hostile on a governmental level. Between the people, there are no problems. We get along great with the Cubans,” Schenpf said. “Dean Olin has really been the mastermind behind cultivating such a great relationship.”
Robert Olin, the dean of the College and Arts and Sciences, headed the development of this initiative. The relationship was established to develop academic, cultural and scientific exchanges between the University and counterparts in Cuba.
Since its inception, there have been nearly 30 trips facilitated through the initiative, according to the Alabama Cuba Initiative website.
“We were given a contribution of $50,000 to explore a partnership with Cuba,” Chip Cooper, artist-in-residence at the Honors College, said. “I went down with Dean Olin and many other deans at the University. Olin got it. He came back on fire and started creating the initiative you see today.”
Brad Erthal, a graduate student studying economics, went on the semester-long UA in Cuba: Language and Culture program in the spring of 2011. He said administration and faculty leadership involved in the initiative helped make the program fantastic.
“We ran into other U.S. students in Cuba and talked to them about stuff they were doing. We got to do a lot more than they did because the leadership of this program has really cultivated relationships within certain departments of the Cuban government,” Erthal said. “[The Cubans] trust us to do things that they don’t necessarily trust other American schools to do. That’s a huge part of it at this point because of the degree of animosity that has existed between Washington and Havana for the last 50 years.”
Starting in 2004, tightened travel regulations to Cuba under President George W. Bush presented challenges to maintain the initiative.
“When universities like Harvard and other universities thought it was too much bureaucracy to deal with, we maintained our relationship,” Cooper said. “So, when Obama came and loosened the restrictions, the Cubans remember who was there during the eight years of tough times. The Cubans say, ‘You’re our friend. You did what you said you would do.’”
Seth Panitch, an associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance, said his time spent taking University students to Havana and working with Cuban actors has not only impacted his student actors, but has expanded his abilities as a writer and director.
“I think, especially, the reason why the Cuban work is so beneficial is because U.S. acting training is usually very psychologically based,” Panitch said. “Because the Cubans react physically, sometimes before they do intellectually, to a moment, they work off impulse very well, which is something U.S. actors sometimes have a difficult time achieving.”
Panitch first traveled with the University to Cuba in 2008 to work with Cuban actors and observe their training. He also directed a Spanish-language production of “The Merchant of Venice” in Cuba.
“It is very neat for me and my students to see what actors experience in a totally different culture, one that is shrouded to us,” Panitch said. “Our actors can very easily understand what a British actor goes through, or a Canadian actor – even a Mexican actor. Because we’re so closed off from Cuban society, it’s an experience that they have no way of getting unless they go down there.”
Cooper said students who go to Cuba with the University have a special appreciation for Cuban poverty and struggle.
“I’ve watched it happen with every single student. Because they see like-minded, intelligent people coupled with a fractured economy, they realize to live there, you have to learn how to take advantage of things to sustain yourself,” Cooper said. “Once you start doing that, and you get into the rhythm of the Cuban people, you realize you’re living alongside people who are happy, but they’re surviving. You realize how much you took for granted in the U.S.”
Erthal said exposure to Cuban society changed his personal political views, although he also learned that not everything in Cuban society is failing.
“I came back more conservative than when I left because you see things you always thought were a good idea put into practice and realize sometimes they don’t work,” Erthal said. “However, I think we need to remember not everything in the system is broken. Some things don’t work at all, and some things work pretty poorly, but there are parts of it that actually make some sense.”
Panitch said the trip does not only benefit students.
“It has improved my work; it morphed and changed it for the better,” he said. “All of the professors who go down there, I believe their work is improving for the better as well. It’s broadening us in ways that our research would never be broadened otherwise, something you can’t get at in a book.”
Schenpf said he would accept applications for the Spring 2013 UA in Cuba program through the end of October. More information can be found at cuba.ua.edu or studyabroad.ua.edu.