Over the last 50 years, the United States’ relationship with Cuba has been politically strained, from the height of the Cold War to the current tension. An old disagreement between the nations culminated in the United States imposing a trade embargo on Cuba, forbidding nearly all exports and imports from the country, and travel to Cuba is forbidden among United States citizens unless for a reason approved by the government, such as for academic purposes.
Saint Joseph’s University has the opportunity to be one of those exceptions, offering a class which focuses on the culture and life of people living in Cuba.
Richard Gioioso, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the political science department, is teaching the class in order to help convey and strengthen the communal understanding of life in Cuba. The course, Contemporary Cuban Politics and Society, also includes an 11-day trip to Cuba to explore the country in various locations that are central to and telling of the island’s history.
“President Obama…has lightened the restrictions, primarily the travel restrictions have been eased, and this has allowed more students, teachers, and professors, as well as other Americans who are not in academia or in school, to travel to Cuba for [educational] purposes. In essence, for cultural exchange,” stated Gioioso.
While on this trip, the class will visit and meet with the Chief of Mission of the United States Interests, John Caulfield, in Havana, Cuba. Caulfield graduated from St. Joe’s with a degree in International Relations. The U.S. has no official diplomatic relations with Cuba, but Caulfield engages as an unofficial ambassador with the country in an effort to “promote safe, legal, and orderly migration.”
Students in the class are learning to interpret the way of life in Cuba through multiple assigned readings and a very open, discussion-based class format.
“It just seems like having a discussion and explaining what you learned and seeing what everyone else did, it’s a lot easier than just being told the facts and writing down the notes,” says Kevin Barrow, ’15.
“I think it’s important to go to another country, learn about them, learn about their perspectives and know that the world is a little bit bigger than St. Joe’s,” says Catherine McParland, ’16.
The class also focuses on the important aspects of United States-Cuban foreign relations, looking especially at the aforementioned trade embargo and modern diplomatic advancement between the two countries.
“I think it’s totally archaic,” says Joe Loguidice, ’14, on the trade embargo. “Advancements have always been symbolic, but they have always been little, never big.”
“The easing of restrictions, travel restrictions and some other restrictions, for example, how much money can be sent from the U.S. to Cuba, these are all signs of good will, or some openness towards Cuba,” stated Gioioso. “They are trying to find their way in this capitalistic-domestic economy, as well as how to enter into a globalized world.”
Students of the class, as well as students throughout the political science department, were encouraged to attend an event on April 2nd, entitled “Utopia & Dystopia In the Tropics: Politics and Art in Cuba,” presented by Damian J. Fernandez, Ph.D.
Fernandez has served as the chairperson of the international relations department and director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. The event focused on Cuba’s ties to the United States through a series of works of art by Cuban artists over the course of Cuban history.
Fernandez describes the current state of the country as one that is changing very slowly in terms of government and economic conditions.
“I do think there is a possibility of national redefinition. I think that the nation can redefine itself in very positive ways, simply by giving Cubans more space to express themselves, to work through themselves, to find their own identity without necessarily the control of the Communist Party of Cuba,” stated Fernandez.
“I think for us in the United States, a big question is what can we do? I believe that U.S. policy should be rethought,” he continued.
Students reflected on what their role was in the cause to help establish and develop a more positive relationship between the two countries, especially with their upcoming trip in mind.
McParland responded that her goal is “to go into it with an educated perception and bring that back here to develop a more open [and] unbiased view of Cuba.” The students will certainly have ample opportunity to do just this on their upcoming trip to Cuba.