Faculty and Students Visit Cuba and Return With Stories to Share

By Alec Deyong, Contributing Writer

Editor’s note:  Most Wednesdays at noon throughout the school year, McKendree hosts a Brown Bag session in PAC 222, during which invited speakers present on a wide range of topics.  Grab your lunch and be sure to try to attend at least one this year; you’re guaranteed to learn something!  Have a class or shift at work during that time?  No worries.  Alec is going to provide us with a synopsis of the presentations!  Check back next week for the next installment. 

Whenever the island nation of Cuba is mentioned, most people think of Cuban cigars, Fidel Castro, or the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is not the case, however, for the small group of professors and students that shared their Cuban experience with us at this week’s Brown Bag.

Dr. Aurélie Capron  (Associate Professor of Spanish), Dr. Janice Wiegmann (Professor of Nursing) and McKendree students Emily Berry and Cassie Craig discussed their May 2018 trip to Cuba with the Brown Bag audience.

The group visiting a farm in Cuba

All four presenters discussed different aspects of Cuban life, government, education and culture. This was not just a lecture on the communist country, however. They also regaled the audience with their stories and experiences on the island.

They traveled to many destinations, ranging from Trinidad to Cienfuegos, and got to see people from various walks of life. They visited a coffee plantation and an urban farm in La Habana.  They even met a man picking bananas with a tarantula in a box!  Their tour guide bartered with him to secure some bananas.  The man, that is; not the tarantula!

Learning about coffee grown in Cuba

The group of students and professors met many different tour guides, the family that owned one of the places they stayed in, and a man who owns a bakery and allowed them to see how he lives and runs his business.

They were also able to meet with Cubans in the medical field and got to see inside the Cuban equivalent of a hospital and its rooms and labs. Dr. Wiegmann spoke about Cuba’s healthcare and how, being a communist state, the Cuban government funds everything related to healthcare.

They recalled their visit to an English bookstore that was operated by an American called Cuba Libro, where they met a student from the University of Havana. In Cuba, education is entirely free, but a test that you take before attending college dictates what careers you are allowed to pursue.

A home in La Habana that depicts the prevalent decay of beautiful architecture throughout the nation.

While their stories were fascinating, there was an underlying theme to their accounts. One of the first things they mentioned is that they were not allowed to just travel wherever they pleased. Dr. Wiegmann noted the government had to approve everywhere they went; for example, their eventually successful trip to a medical clinic was planned but was delayed for unknown reasons multiple times.

They noted that their experience, while fun and exciting, was very guided and controlled. They were even told by one of their tour guides that they could ask them anything on the tour bus, but not in public because they were being listened to. They also mentioned that in a few of their interactions with the Cuban people, such as the medical professionals, the group got the feeling the questions they asked and what they said was being documented.

The bakery owner mentioned above and his employee

Government eavesdropping aside, the presenters repeatedly stressed how warm and welcoming the Cuban people were. From the bed and breakfast they stayed at, to the baker and his family, to the family of farmers they spent time with, Dr. Capron and the others repeatedly pointed out how amazing their experiences were and how much they enjoyed their time on the island.

6 thoughts on “Faculty and Students Visit Cuba and Return With Stories to Share

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  1. Thanks for covering this! We are so, so lucky here to have a wonderful range of topics at our brown bags-this is such a special part of McKendree.

  2. Conner Gorry here, founder of Cuba Libro, the bookstore mentioned in this piece. I have been a health reporter here in Havana for over 15 years (in addition to running the bookstore/cafe – the only English language bookstore on the island) and have a lot of experience receiving, organizing and guiding groups. Many times, delays or changes to schedules visiting health facilities, schools and the like is that it completely interrupts the work/study day. For your group, it’s a one time visit – for that institution, they have requests for groups every day. So it is often not convenient or can put someone’s health or studies in jeopardy to receive a group at the agreed upon time.

    On another note: at Cuba Libro, we receive groups from the US all the time where they receive an overview of the recent changes and context in Cuba by me (as an accredited journalist here, it’s my job to keep abreast of things!) and have intimate, break out group conversations with regular Cubans. These exchanges are 100% open and un-monitored – Cuba is NOT a Utopia (no where is) so this gives people a chance to talk about the strides made here (even under the world’s longest, strongest blockade by the USA) and the challenges. Im glad your group had a chance to come and see Cuba for themselves and draw their own conclusions. Cheers from Havana

  3. Thanks for this article, Alec! And thanks to everyone who participates in the Brown Bag series.

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