Letter From Havana: Geography, History, and Industrial Arts

They are lovingly restored and each endowed with a female name. One of the “new” ones being built, in fact, will be called “Meg” after the Columbia University professor who helped advise us on our International Academic Partnership Program (IAPP) delegation that traveled throughout Cuba to Camagüey, Ciego de Ávila, Havana, and Santa Clara from October 24 to 31.

We visited several universities, including University Of Arts of Cuba; University “Marta Abreu” of Las Villas; Universidad Ciencias Medicas De La Habana; University of Havana; and University of Ciego De Avila. Our group represented 12 schools across the spectrum of American higher education, including Associated Colleges of the Midwest; Central Washington University; Indiana University; Lehman College, CUNY; Oberlin College; Rutgers University; SUNY New Paltz; University of Arizona; Montclair State University; University of Tampa; Virginia Commonwealth University; and West Texas A&M, and all are interested in institutional partnerships and Cuba as a destination for study abroad.

It was not hard to envision. I estimate that by January there will be over 50 U.S. students here for a full semester, and over the years, Cuba has managed to have thousands of students from 190 countries. American flags are now flying on some campuses, as you can see from the picture of the main ceremonial hall at the University of Medical Sciences. 

Since 2005, 128 Americans are among its alumni. The tuition is free, and for many of the students we saw from Africa, it is the only opportunity they have to study medicine without cost. As one girl from South Africa put it, “at home we would not have this opportunity.”

We also realized that this was an opportunity for us to understand that Cuba is a country rather than a missile crisis or an embargo. There is a 400-year history and a narrative our students would benefit greatly from learning, and the Cuban professors are natural lecturers. Contemplation of how even a “splendid little war,” as Secretary of State Secretary of State John Hay called the Spanish-American War, does not mean we understand what to do next when the last shots are fired. From the Cuban perspective, we are still trying to figure out what to do here and how to unravel a set of exquisitely tortuous sanctions imposed decades ago. Indeed almost everything you have an impulse to want to do carries a risk that some aspect of some sanction will be tested.

I say exquisite because the island nation is so darned close—40 minutes by air from Miami with “Supermercados” whose shelves are bare, whose home repair businesses would keep Home Depot and Walmart open 24/7, and where currently the import of any product with greater than 10-percent American content makes a country who ships materials here subject to large U.S. and New York State fines as payment funds flow through our banks.

The leading American products as far as I could tell are multi-flavored tubes of Pringles, manufactured in Tennessee and imported through Israel. Go figure.

Like other places where relations are normalizing with the United States, there is very little Internet. Except at the universities where Fidel himself is known to have delivered boxes of computers and CPUs that look today like genuine antiques, lovingly restored. There are some benefits, of course, to not having instant access to email on iPhone, as one of our delegates observed. “In the meetings we had to listen, because we could not slump down in our seats and keep checking email.”

And it is having an unusual effect of kids. They don’t spend time on iPhones and iPads either. They practice baseball outdoors.

Most universities say they now have hundreds of agreements with foreign universities. We heard consistently that there is clear political will to establish international partnerships. But nearly all are with European and Asian Institutions. While some of us waited 9 hours for our delayed flight to Miami, the direct flight from Havana to Frankfurt came and went on time. So did KLM and Air France. The geography that should be our real ally in the process of normalization has yet to be mobilized.

The cars also have another generic name: Frankenstein. This is because, under the hood, they are run by parts from Korea and China. As far as I could tell, the cars run well. But it would be a shame if, in the process of Cuba’s educational institutions opening to the world, the only place they can’t get the parts they need is from America.