It might have been when FBI agents showed up on the Kellogg Community College campus that Kate DeGraaf and Kevin Rabineau realized this wasn’t going to be any ordinary student educational enrichment trip.
Indeed, when the idea of KCC students taking a trip to Cuba was first floated two years ago, no one really knew what would come from it.
“But we decided we were going to think outside the box a little bit and challenge ourselves,” said Rabineau, KCC’s chair of regional education and director of the Fehsenfeld Center, who has made more than a few international trips with the school over the years.
But Cuba? This was a first.
So when the FBI showed up a few weeks before the Feb. 13 departure that would include 16 students, Rabineau and Service-Learning Manager Kate DeGraaf, the idea was officially and completely out of the box.
“They talked about safety and international affairs and what we should be aware of specifically about Cuba,” Rabineau said. “They said ‘Cuba knows everything about everyone coming in so, in other words, you should be safe.’ ”
“They said, ‘You’re in new territory and you don’t know what you’re stepping into,’ ” DeGraaf said.
And, frankly, no one from the United States really would.
The staunchly Communist country has been little more than an enigma to most Americans since a 1960 U.S. travel and goods embargo of the island 90 miles from the U.S. mainland.
All many Americans knew was that it was the flashpoint for a possible nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1962. For later generations, even that faded from knowledge and KCC officials began to put the idea together that visiting the island could be an intriguing prospect.
They worked with officials at Wake Forest Technical Community College in North Carolina, which had made a trip there, as well as Grand Valley State University in Allendale.
The arrangement were handled by Explorica, a travel company with experience scheduling trips to Cuba and elsewhere.
But when plans began, no one was aware how significant the trip would ultimately be.
That’s because in December, President Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba would re-establish diplomatic relations, ending more than 50 years of relative isolation.
What the group found when it got there was a country looking to the future while still clinging to its past.
The hotel they stayed in was government-controlled and much of what the group saw (and they did not see most of the island) was exactly what Cuban officials wanted them to see, Rabineau said.
But government officials couldn’t control everything.
“The word was out that there might be normalization in relations so a lot of Cubans were expressing hopefulness,” he said. “I think they’d welcome capitalism, but most did not come out and say that. But they like having people in their country spending money.”
“There’s a great level of excitement,” she said. “There’s an expectancy but there’s also uncertainty. The younger generation in Cuba hasn’t know anything else so they’re the ones really wanting change.”
The group’s trip included tours of Old Havana, an artist colony, an organic garden, a community development project and two art schools.
“We went to large organic community garden within the city of Havana,” Rabineau said. “We saw tobacco and coffee plantations and we could see they were very careful how they used their resources because of the embargo. I was surprised they were so organically conscious — surprised and pleased. They are so focused on that but then the air quality in Havana was horrible because all the cars were built before there were emissions control.”
DeGraaf said what caught her attention was how resourceful the Cuban people have become — mostly out of necessity.
“One aspect is the positivity of the people and their resilience and creativity,” she said. “They can take a trash dump and even though they don’t have running water, they ask ‘What can I do to bring something positive to my community?’ One man did a mosaic for the whole town to captivate and encourage people. It was fascinating to them and rejuvenating at the same time. When the Soviet Union fell, the Cuban people went through what they called the ‘special period.’ Resources were scarce but they really came together as a people.”
Both DeGraaf and Rabineau said the trip had a profound impact on each of them and several of the students, who paid nearly $4,000 to make the journey, said they want to return when relations between the two countries have had a chance to advance.
“There was so much we didn’t get a chance to see,” Rabineau said. “In a few years it might provide a real contrast to see how things have changed.”
“There are perceptions of Cuba,” DeGraaf said. “But no matter what, they’re people like anybody else.”
By Chuck Carlson, Battle Creek Enquirer
March 10, 2015