The streets of Havana are a patchwork of antique cars, peeling historic buildings in cotton candy colors, and the sizzling sounds of street vendors’ chicharritas de platano (fried plantains). It’s the city that 9-year-old Carey Powers ’14 fell in love with when she and her family visited her dad while he was there learning about the Cuban healthcare system. Now, 13 years later, Powers is back, working with Cuba Educational Travel at one of the most exciting moments in Cuban history.
On Feb. 16 President Obama announced an agreement that will allow 110 scheduled daily flights from the United States to Cuba, and he said he plans to visit the country in March. It was the latest step as the two countries further loosen restrictions that date back to the Cold War, when President Kennedy instituted a travel ban after Cuba began hosting Soviet nuclear weapons.
In recent years the U.S. government has cracked the door to Cuba, allowing Americans to travel for humanitarian, research, or educational purposes. For Powers, her lifelong “obsession” with the Pearl of the Antilles is suddenly a hot commodity. As relations gradually normalized, she has traveled frequently to Cuba from her base in Washington D.C., to help facilitate those permissible trips by organizing appropriate permits, planning educational excursions, and booking hotels and restaurants.
The last bit has gotten even trickier since Obama signed an agreement with Cuba last July to restore diplomatic relations. Since then, American tourists have flooded Cuba, many wanting to see the country before it “modernizes,” though Powers is quick to point out that the country has had a rich and dynamic history since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. The influx has made booking hotel rooms and making restaurant reservations a capricious process—you never know what is going to be available, and you never know what the prices will be.
Still, for Powers this is a dream job. She’s been fascinated by Cuba for much of her life, and she managed to make it an academic focus at Colby. Powers majored in global studies with a concentration in Latin America, and she wrote every paper she could on Cuba, no matter the subject—a paper on Catholicism in Cuba for a gender and religion class, for example. The Cuban American literature she read with Allen Professor of Latin American Literature Jorge Olivares still rattles around in her head as she walks the streets of Havana.
With that background, Powers is right at home among vendors hawking wares on city streets or chatting with locals in the casas particulares (Cuban bed and breakfasts). She says Cuba has changed dramatically since she first visited with her family in 2003—and even since she went again to study abroad in 2012.
These days, Powers said, Havana is bursting at the seams with tourists, but at the same time young Cubans are leaving their country in droves. Because jobs in the tourist industry in Cuba are becoming more lucrative than working as a doctor or professor, many young intellectuals are leaving to apply their professional skills elsewhere. In response to this brain drain, the Cuban government imposed new laws last year to restrict physicians—the heart of Cuba’s vaunted healthcare system—from leaving the country. But even these policies aren’t deterring the nearly half a million Cubans who have traveled to other countries on “personal business.”
In addition, America’s warming relations towards Cuba have prompted many young Cubans to worry that the American government will no longer give Cubans preferential immigration status. Many of them are hustling to get to America before that happens. Powers says that many of the Cuban friends she met while studying abroad have already left the country.
Despite all these issues, Powers maintains that Cuba has its bright spots. For example, the Cuban government provides free world-class university education and supports a vibrant arts scene. Hoping that Americans who visit will gain a more nuanced view of their neighbor to the south, Powers said she knows she’s doing a good job when Americans tell her that Cuba is “so complicated.”
“And these are older people,” she said. “It’s so neat to see grandmothers start to get obsessed with something I’ve been obsessed with since I was nine.”
Jenny Chen, Colby Magazine, Colby College