A NEW DAWN A tourist in Havana who savors a mojito, smokes a cigar and rides in a coco taxi may never truly appreciate the city and its people. By embedding students with a host family in a neighborhood for 10 weeks, the College’s study-abroad program ensures that students not only experience the real Cuba, but come away forever changed.
Everybody wants to see the old cars – the Chevys and Fords and Oldsmobiles of a bygone era.
In America, these automotive treasures would be locked away in private garages, rolled out cautiously only for car shows and Sunday-morning drives. In Cuba, they are everyday means of transportation and a magnet for tourist dollars.
For every immaculate cherry-red convertible cruising on white-walled tires along the Malecón, there are a dozen coupes coughing and chugging up and down the side streets. They show their age – ripped seats revealing rusty springs, toxic fumes seeping into the cabins through holes in the floorboards, doors and windows welded shut by decades of exposure to the salty air, faded paintjobs and tarnished chrome bumpers. Hang on tight, the seatbelts, if there are any, might not latch. The driver will gun it on the straightaways, but the needle on the broken speedometer won’t know.
The front door is open and everyone seems welcome. A game of dominoes is played at a large wooden dining table in the kitchen. On a console television in the living room, a baseball game between Canada and the Dominican Republic is under way. A bottle of Havana Club Rum makes the rounds. The whirring blades of a fan circulate the humid air inside. Outside, the idling engine of an old Chevy coupe coughs and sputters.
Music is the beating heart of the Cuban culture. A melting pot of sounds, Cuban music carries the beats and chords of everything from rhumba and flamenco to the flare of its West African, Spanish and Latino heritage.
Amid the cacophony of rumbling old cars, the pulsing and whirring of music wafting from radios and music venues, and animated conversations of fisherman and tourists alike, College of Charleston students take it all in while studying perched on Havana's famed sea wall, el Malecón.
In all of Cuba’s long and tumultuous history of foreign occupation, dictatorships, revolution and the relentless struggle for freedom, there has never been a time quite like now. In the wake of renewed diplomatic relations with the U.S. and loosened restrictions on travel and trade, Havana is experiencing something of a boom.
There are signs of change everywhere: towering construction cranes, historic restoration projects, hordes of tourists, Wi-Fi hotspots, cruise ships and the first American-owned hotels in more than a half a century. Even a Hollywood movie has just wrapped filming on the island.
Where it will all lead, no one knows for sure. But to see the transformation in progress is to witness history up close, to watch the slow thaw of a country long frozen in time. The import of this unprecedented moment is not lost on a group of 10 College of Charleston students who find themselves living and learning in the midst of what could arguably be described as a revolution.
Just three months after the death of Cuba’s longtime leader Fidel Castro and mere weeks into the presidency of Donald Trump, the students arrived in Havana in mid-February for a 10-week stay as part of a College study-abroad program. The eight women and two men represent a cross section of the student body: There are sophomores, juniors and seniors with majors such as Spanish, Latin American and Caribbean studies, biology and political science. They hail from Rhode Island, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia and from just across the Cooper River in Mt. Pleasant.
They came to Havana for adventure, culture, education, immersion and connection. And they are acutely aware of the political dynamic that hangs in the humid air as their plane touches down at José Martí International Airport about 10 miles outside of Havana. In fact, for some, it’s the uncertainty of what comes next for Cuba that has brought them here now. As Honors College sophomore Hannah Jane Dantzscher puts it, “before there’s a Starbucks on every block.”
Despite the reforms negotiated by President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in 2014, the Caribbean nation remains mainly off limits to American tourists. That makes this particular study-abroad trip at this precise juncture an extraordinary privilege, or, to use an apt cliché – the opportunity of a lifetime.
“Fortunately, or unfortunately, however you see it, Fidel Castro just passed away,” says Sarah Owens, professor of Spanish and director of the College’s study-abroad program in Cuba. “People are going to mark time in the future before and after Fidel. So probably for the rest of our lives, we are going to say we went there a few months after Fidel passed away. Or we went there right after Donald Trump became president. I think it’s a really, really interesting time. And Cuba is changing by the day, by the minute.”
Becoming a Family
The students signed on for an authentic experience, the chance to live as Cubans live, or at least a close approximation. This aspect of the program, embedding students with host families in the Havana neighborhood of Vedado, is the program’s defining feature.
The casas particulares, or private homes, where they live with ordinary Cuban families, offer the students more than just a place to sleep and store their belongings. The nature of their accommodations – and the relationships they forge with their hosts – has an enormous influence on their stay, affecting their daily routines, their diets, how they get around, how they spend their free time and how they interact with other Cubans and each other.
“It really is your first point of integration into the culture,” senior Kelty Carson, a double major in international studies and religious studies, says of her host family. “And you learn through them. It’s almost like having that second set of parents because you are like a baby learning how to move through the social norms. They’ve made me feel like a big part of the family. They’ve allowed me to become a little more Cuban.”
Separated from the cloistered confines of the city’s tourism infrastructure, the students are forced to rely on their wits, their Spanish and their youthful confidence to navigate the city and its customs. They know their class schedules and the dates of group excursions and activities, but they enjoy ample free time to lounge on the beaches, dance in the nightclubs, watch live music, explore museums and historic sites and hang out with their host families.
Tom Millington, resident director for Spanish Studies Abroad, the company that organizes the CofC study-abroad trip in Havana, says the program is designed to build bridges and form friendships between Americans and Cubans. University students from the States are particularly well suited to serve as ambassadors because they instinctively crave authentic experiences and human interaction, he says.
“They are very enthusiastic. They are very excited. They are very flexible, curious. And they are willing to try new things,” says Millington. “It’s not just me, it’s not just the professors at the university, but every single person in this community has something to teach you.”
That open-mindedness and adaptability help newly arrived students overcome the initial culture shock of having little or no access to Internet and email, no Target stores for one-stop shopping, no frappuccino. For a generation raised in an always-connected, get-it-now culture of instant gratification, adapting to the Cuban way of life, which places less emphasis on time and immediacy, requires a period of adjustment. In Cuba, things will happen when they happen.
Another glaring difference the students encounter is the lack of choices available to most Cubans – whether it be food, transportation, housing or employment. There’s a saying that Americans are unhappy with what they don’t have, while Cubans are happy with what they do have. It seems that whatever Cubans have is valued, protected and cared for. An old Soviet-era Lada sedan is miraculously kept running decades past its prime, and a pair of new sneakers are cleaned meticulously. The food on the dinner table is treasured. Many Cubans recall the “special period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, when food shortages triggered an epidemic of malnutrition across the island. Most of all there is reverence for the large and diverse networks of family and friends who form the very foundation of what makes Cuba so unique – its people, all 11.3 million of them.
Events in Cuba tend to unfold naturally. It’s best to go with the flow. It will happen when it happens. No one seems to be in any particular hurry except the taxis, which fly along the winding waterfront at dizzying speeds, offering warning honks to pedestrians considering whether to cross the street. Yet, there never seem to be any serious accidents.
The 10 College of Charleston students and their professor grew close over the course of their trip to Cuba, forming friendships that will last beyond their time at the College.
Collin Laverty ’06 understands the allure of Cuba.
After visiting Cuba through the College’s study-abroad program in 2005, he embarked on a career path that ultimately led him to start a business that helps other Americans visit the island nation.
Launched in 2012 with alumnus Adam Linderman ’06, Cuba Educational Travel organizes custom trips to Cuba ranging from family excursions to corporate retreats to political delegations.
The company has put together trips for Netflix and Spotify, and last spring it helped arrange a free concert along Havana’s famed Malecón by electronic music DJs Diplo and Major Lazer that drew upwards of 500,000 people, mostly Cuban teenagers.
“Over the last two and a half years, business has been booming,” says Laverty. “Everyone wants to travel to Cuba.”
The roots of the company can be traced back to Laverty’s college experience. In addition to his 10-week trip to Cuba during his senior year, he participated in a semester-at-sea cruise as a sophomore that included a stop in Cuba, and he went to Santiago, Chile, his junior year. These trips awakened a passion in him, and he knew he wanted a career involving international affairs and travel.
Following graduation, he took an internship with the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a Washington, D.C., think tank focused on U.S.-Cuba relations, where he worked his way up to become director of the center’s Cuba program. Over the next three and a half years, he became deeply involved in policy research and advocacy efforts aimed at restoring normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
After leaving the center in 2011 – he’s still on its advisory board – to earn a master’s in international relations at the University of California San Diego, Laverty began thinking about how he could put the contacts, knowledge and insights he’d gained into a business tied to Cuba. Within a matter of months, he had obtained a license from the U.S. government to organize travel to the Caribbean nation, launched the company and moved to Havana.
Business was good, and it got even better after President Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba in 2014. But the election of Donald Trump has raised concerns that things could swing back in the other direction.
“There are threats to kind of cut off travel and trade and investment opportunities, which will be bad for business,” says Laverty, who also runs a boutique consultancy called Havana Strategies, which helps U.S. companies enter the Cuban market.
While his livelihood is dependent on Americans visiting Cuba, Laverty recognizes that unrestricted trade and travel could kill the goose that laid the golden egg. He’s spent enough time in the country and has enough relationships with Cubans – his wife is Cuban – to understand there must be a balance.
“I think the Cubans understand the old city is a jewel, and the fact that there aren’t billboards and mass consumerism is something that’s appealing. And I think they understand that they need to retain that,” he says. “The U.S. can lift the embargo tomorrow, that doesn’t mean they have to allow McDonald’s in, and it doesn’t mean they have to allow 10 million Americans a year. Ultimately, it will be up to Cubans to manage that challenge.”