By ERNIE GARCIA
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: January 26, 2007)
YONKERS - A fall semester abroad became a front-row seat to history for
Sarah Lawrence College students, who recently returned from Cuba.
The group of 18 students spent four months at the University of Havana,
arriving 18 days after ailing Cuban President Fidel Castro's July 31
transfer of power to his brother Raul. The news set off international
speculation - which continues today - over whether Castro, who has ruled
the island nation for 47 years, was near death.
"People were on edge. They talked about it, and it was an uncomfortable
topic," said junior Jessica Arco, referring to reports of Castro's illness.
The students shared their experiences and observation on Cuban life,
society and politics during a presentation at the college on Tuesday.
While some students felt Cubans appeared anxious about the transition to
a post-Fidel government, they didn't necessarily expect the demise of
Cuban socialism. Fidel Castro transferred power as he underwent
intestinal surgery, but the 80-year-old leader has not returned to his
Contrary to televised images in the United States of Cuban-Americans
dancing in the streets in early August, Cubans did not outwardly
celebrate or even see such images, said junior Sarahli Norum-Gross, 20.
"I felt that there wouldn't be a big change," she said.
The students participated in an exchange program with the University of
Havana that Sarah Lawrence College has run for six years. Students took
four classes in the university according to their academic interests.
The U.S. government restricts travel to Cuba under sanctions first
imposed in 1963. Accredited U.S. colleges and universities may receive
embargo exemptions to send students to Cuban educational programs.
Visitors from the United States to Cuba typically travel through a third
nation. The Sarah Lawrence students traveled to Cuba on regular
Despite the travel ban, Cuba is not closed off to the world. The island
received 2.32 million tourists in 2005, the country's biggest income
source, according to the U.S. State Department.
Cuban police discourage contact with tourists, and Cubans can be
detained for fraternizing with foreigners, some of the students said.
The students also described a country where people take pride in their
free education, health care and housing, though the quality of housing
is not very good in cities. Most Cubans live on $10 to $15 a month,
which means that most Cubans live in meager conditions, students said.
The students recalled that some Cubans asked them for items like soap.
Cubans want an end to the U.S. embargo against their country, the
students said. For example, products manufactured in China might be tied
to U.S. investments, so Chinese companies won't sell to Cuba.
"The effects are far-reaching," said Vail. "It affects their access to
computers and medicine."
Sarah Pepin, 21, a senior, went to Cuba to see the country's
accomplishments and shortcomings for herself. She was criticized for
traveling to a country considered an enemy of the U.S. government.
"Partially it's due to press coverage," Pepin said of negative
perceptions about Cuba. "There are people who think anything related to
communism or socialism is bad."
Reach Ernie Garcia at email@example.com or 914-696-8290.