Reflections on a Cuban Study Tour

This summer, four American University graduate students traveled to Cuba to conduct an evaluation of IIE’s Cuba International Academic Partnership Program as part of a faculty-led group project. While informative academically and programmatically, this collection of short observations highlights how each team member also grew personally from the experience.


The week I spent in Cuba was a whirlwind of emotions because it challenged me in many ways I was not expecting. I expected to be challenged politically and academically because of literature I read in preparation for my trip. As the only Latina in the group, I assumed my identity would protect me, but instead it challenged me much more than I anticipated. Coming from a Mexican-American background, I had to let go of two misconstrued lenses of Cuba; I had to let go of my ingrained capitalist prejudices, and I had to let go of my reliance on technology in order to fully embrace my surroundings in Cuba. I learned that Cuba is an astounding country and, as many Cubans reassured me upon my arrival, to read about Cuba is no substitute for coming to the island and actually seeing firsthand how Cuba is. It was an incredible journey that involved traveling to Havana and Cienfuegos, where I was able to see the impressive architecture, pristine beaches, and incredible landscape. The conversations I had with Cubans allowed me to understand how building personal friendships will ultimately help combat the historical distrust between the United States and Cuba and even the lack of solidarity that Mexico has repeatedly shown to Cuba. My call to action would be to encourage anyone who wishes to learn more about Cuba to take the time to travel to the country to be a witness to their way of life, culture and experience; only then will you be able to really begin to understand Cuba.


It is always startling to visit a country for the first time, no matter how many places I’ve had the opportunity to visit. I was strongly reminded this within the first couple of hours in Cuba. My brain kept trying to find points of reference for what I was experiencing; and this became my overarching theme of the trip. The sweltering summer heat, the hints of Spanish architecture, and the smell of exhaust in the air reminded me strongly of the bustling Philippines. The warm and welcoming people offering up mangoes, rice, and beans brought about fond memories of Costa Rica. The beautiful beaches and tropical drinks hearkened me back to gorgeous Aruba. With that said, there were many things that simply had no substitute. The vintage cars, the bizarre mix of architectural influences, and the subtle, yet simultaneously glaring absence of capitalism were distinctly Cuban. What impressed me most was the Cuban sense of independence and fierce patriotism. The Cubans we encountered had no qualms with the increasing numbers of Americans touring their country, but they had no tolerance for even a whiff of American imposition. Their unwavering certainty that they deserved the right to imagine their own nation free from influence was very powerful for me. It dawned on me while there that Cuba and the Philippines held very similar prospects in 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American War. Ultimately, their paths diverged into starkly different political realities. As a Filipina-American, I covet their autonomy and confidence in their ability to hold their own; it is what I wish for the Filipino people.


As a white female, raised Christian in an upper-middle class neighborhood, I am well aware of my privilege. I’ve spent many years unpacking it and, through this process, have grown more and more committed to working toward advancing equity in the United States and globally. I am also a seasoned traveler, relatively conscious in my identity, and felt confident in my ability to recognize my blessings, adjust quickly to the new culture, and make my way to the really ground-breaking conversations. Cuba, however, was the one that surprised me. On the surface, it felt similar to other trips I’ve taken. Some salsa in the streets, beautiful Spanish colonial architecture, rice and beans. But we all noticed very quickly that the Cubans we met are not looking for a helping hand or assistance, even a little bit. There was no philanthropic work to do, only collaboration with distinct mutual benefit. And despite my best intentions to remove biases in my approach, I caught myself over and over inserting my own ideologies into conversations and expectations. It took practice and intention to really allow myself to learn the true Cuban approach. To do this, I borrowed approaches to movements dedicated to advancing equity among marginalized groups in the United States, as Cuba is similarly not interested in any semblance of paternalistic input from their northern neighbors. In both countries, I’ve slowly learned, the only true way to advance growth is to first: step back and listen to needs. As representative of a formerly oppressive group of people, in both the United States and Cuba, there needs to be a period of just learning and listening. Doing so is the most direct way to show the other party that they are valued. Second: solutions can only come from a process of co-creation. If they do not, they will be considered either a handout, or paternalistic; and nobody is interested in that. Once these two steps have been established, the real collaboration (and fun!) can begin.


Traveling to Cuba is one of those experiences that you try to prepare for, but once you arrive, you realize that the best course of action would be to relax and enjoy the ride. It is a country of rich culture, vibrant history, exotic environments, and hospitable individuals. Yet as the country may struggle financially, the true richness shines through the interactions with every individual. This was the biggest benefit that my practicum team members had the chance to experience, and we became driven to learn how these experiences could help build stronger intercultural connections and perceptions that have been limited through decades of division and conflict. Every Cuban we encountered welcomed us into their homes, shops, historical sites, and educational institutions. They were interactions that exemplified the purest sense of getting to know your neighbor instead of what you can get out of them. While we were there, our work focused on the methods and advice of how to continue this relational revitalization, and it is our hope to provide actionable outcomes that any individual or institution can implement. Building trust is key to establishing a Cuban relationship, and in order to get there, you must practice patience and flexibility while keeping an open mind. So before you travel to Cuba, suspend all of your preconceptions and prior opinions while showing your appreciation or everything that Cuba holds dear. So brush up on your Spanish, take a few mambo lessons, and acquire a taste for Cuban coffee. Relax and enjoy the ride; your machina is waiting.