Forbidden Land: Canisius Students Explore the Contradictions of the Cuban Nation

A contingent of Canisius students did something that very few Americans are permitted to do legally: They spent five weeks living and learning in the Republic of Cuba. 

They did so under the guidance of Richard Reitsma, PhD, assistant professor of Spanish and Latin American studies and Tom Hansen, PhD, who served as adjunct professor of international relations during the trip.

“The purpose of this trip was to give students a richer understanding of what the revolution accomplished for Cuba and what still needs to change,” says Reitsma.

“Americans are only permitted to travel to Cuba for humanitarian, academic, or family purposes and must receive approval from the U.S. Department of Treasury,” explains Jerome L. Neuner, PhD, associate vice president for academic affairs.

The Canisius students who took the trip included:

  • Matthew J. Mullin ’14, an English and Spanish dual major in the All-College Honors Program

  • Stephanie E. Petrie ’13, an English major in the All-College Honors Program

  • Milano A. Rodriguez ’13, a Latin American studies, international relations and political science triple major

  • Shannon R. Stephens ’14, an international relations major in the All-College Honors Program

  • Arianne T. Walker ’13, an international relations major   

While in Cuba, students lived and studied at the Centro Memorial Martin Luther King Jr., a Christian-based center for social justice in Havana. Reitsma taught two courses, Spanish language and Cuban Cinema Post-Revolution, which addresses social justice issues in Cuba such as poverty, class, race and gender. Hansen, who also serves as international educational director of the Mexico Solidarity Network, taught Cuban Politics and Social History. Guest speakers included leading Cuban university professors, social activists and political leaders. Beyond the classroom, Canisius students explored the Cuban plight for food, transportation and housing.  One assignment required each student to purchase a week’s worth of groceries for a fictional family of three, with only 100 pesos (or the equivalent of $4 dollars).

“The selection was sparse, and everything was very expensive,” says Stephens. The average monthly income in Cuba is between $17 - $30 U.S. dollars, notes the international relations major. 

“People stand on the road for three or four hours and the bus never comes,” says Mullin, who first learned about the country’s transportation struggles in Reitsma’s Cuban cinema course. “All the films that we viewed addressed the country’s social justice issues -- poverty, race, and gender, but I didn’t realize the struggles of these people until I was actually in Cuba and witnessed them first-hand.”

Students soaked up Cuban culture, with excursions to Old Havana City, Las Terrazas National Park, the Palacio do los Capitanes Generales (the former official residence of the governors) and the home of Nobel Prize- winning American author Ernest Hemingway. They sampled Cuban cuisine, relaxed in the crystal blue ocean waters and enjoyed the sounds of ethnic music.

But students were perhaps most enlightened by their day-to-day interactions with the Cuban people. “Cubans do not want to talk about politics all day,” adds Mullin, who admits that he arrived in Cuba with his “guard up” because of its communist policy. “Cubans are welcoming, friendly people who want to talk about music, art or baseball.” 

“I think since the embargo people have forgotten Cuba and see it as an alien place but that is not the case at all,” says Reitsma.

See photos of the Cuba trip and read more about the trip in the Canisius Magazine story here.