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As the United States loosens its economic sanctions and travel restrictions to Cuba, Elon students are discovering the island for the first time.


People go about their business in Old Havana, the area mostly designated for tourists visiting Cuba. Recent policy changes are making it easier for U.S. students to visit the island. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Schwartz.

hen thinking about Cuba, it’s hard not to imagine a country stuck in the 1950s, full of old buildings, breathtaking natural beauty and vintage cars. It’s a romantic idea that simplifies the reality of a country full of paradoxes. Defined tourist areas, all mostly in the Old Havana section, and a dual currency system—visitors are required to use Cuban convertible pesos while the locals use the less-valued Cuban peso—make for complicated money exchanges. Just outside the airport, visitors are greeted with anti-U.S. billboards, a reminder of the strained relationship between the two countries. Yet the lure of the island is hard to resist. When interactive media student Rachel Brent found out her Winter Term fly-in course was taking her to Cuba, she couldn’t contain her enthusiasm. “If I remember correctly, my first reaction was to go ‘EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE’ and jump up and down for a few minutes,” she wrote in her course blog. “It’s been said before, but with good reason: this is a once-in-a-lifetime [opportunity].” Indeed, for more than half a century, the idea of visiting Cuba was almost unthinkable for most Americans. Soon after Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959, relations deteriorated between the two countries. By 1962, the United States enacted an economic embargo and severed diplomatic relations with the island. Additional educational travel restrictions imposed in 2004 drastically affected the number of U.S. study abroad programs on the island. During the 2003–04 academic year, about 2,148 U.S. students studied on the island, according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors 2005 report. By 2010–11, the number decreased to 375.

And while U.S.-Cuba relations remain tense, the loosening of travel restrictions in 2011 has opened a window of opportunity for U.S. colleges—including Elon. Earlier this year, two groups of Elon students visited Cuba as part of their Winter Term studies. Brent was one of six students in the interactive media graduate program who spent five days on the island under the guidance of communications faculty member Randy Piland, reporting and producing material for an organic farm on the outskirts of Havana. Two communications seniors traveled with the group as part of a project for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Meanwhile, Kevin O’Mara, professor of management, and Art Cassill, the Wesley R. Elingburg Professor of Accounting, led a group of 23 students as they made stops in the Cayman Islands and Cuba to explore the impact of globalization and how countries make decisions in a globally competitive world. “Five years ago, we wouldn’t have thought about it,” says Woody Pelton, Elon’s dean of global studies, whose office gave guidance to Piland and helped O’Mara coordinate the program through a Canadian educational tour agency. “It’s still a challenging place to go to; it still requires a certain license.” But, he adds, “It’s a new opportunity.”

‘FROZEN IN TIME’ Preserved by a combination of political and social roadblocks, Cuba has remained virtually untouched for the past half century. “Only blocks outside the tourist part of Old Havana, the city is literally crumbling; we were told two or three buildings collapse every day,” O’Mara says. “It is difficult to look at the conditions in the streets and the buildings people are living in. Most people live on $20 per month and receive rations from the government to assist them. Their lives are basic, limited and difficult.” As part of their course, O’Mara and his students looked at the different dimensions of Cuban society

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The Magazine of Elon, Spring 2013  
The Magazine of Elon, Spring 2013  

The Magazine of Elon, Spring 2013