As he walked through downtown Havana, New College of Florida’s Professor Brendan Goff saw literally thousands of people tapping and talking on phones and tablets, connected to the Internet and to each other.
“More people were surfing and skyping and emailing and texting than I’d ever seen anywhere in one place in my life,” said Goff, a history professor who formerly worked on Wall Street. “Now, while that is very likely not at all the case in the rest of Cuba, still it was a degree of connectivity that astounded me.
Goff and Sociology Prof. Sarah Hernandez got to see the real Cuba as part of a week-long program in December. They were selected as part of a contingent from the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC), intended to help them learn about contemporary issues in Cuba and build ties with Cuban scholars.
They met with Cuban experts on topics including politics, economics, demographic shifts and natural resources, visited archives and museums and took in meals and cultural activities.
Hernandez said the program will help her with course she is planning on Latin American Social Theory by letting her make initial contacts with other sociologists. But it also aligned with her interest in Latin American efforts in economic and social development to improve quality of life, and her particular research interest in cooperatives as an economic model.
Cuban officials are turning to cooperatives, first in agriculture and now in the urban sector, to improve their economy as they see the weaknesses of state control of most production and assets.
“Participating in this program allowed to develop initial contacts with scholars in Cuba, so that in the future I can return to revitalize my research on cooperativism,” Hernandez said via e-mail, while abroad on research leave. “Only through this visit could I have had the opportunity to leaf through a book in the archives that contains the list of organizations in Cuba. I was very surprised to find what appears to be hundreds of cooperatives that appear to have existed since before the Revolution.”
off agreed that the trip helped his research and pedagogy enormously. He is working on a book about the history of Rotary clubs around the world, including Cuba. “I was able to visit the National Archive and look at their finding aids, which are not online, in order to get a clear idea as to what they have in their archives.” He also got to know several Cuban intellectuals and professors who are important to the field of U.S.–Cuban relations, relevant for the course he teaches U.S.–Caribbean relations every two years.
“Spending time in Cuba and getting to know the people in Havana and experience some of its culture and history up close certainly informs my classes on the same,” he said. “Down the road, I hope to bring at least one or two Cuban speakers to campus in support of this course.”
Both professors said the trip allowed them to visit Cuba much sooner than they could have otherwise, thanks to the movement toward a normalization of relations between the countries. But just what “normalization” means is a riddle, Goff said, because those relations have never been normal.
Shortly after Cuba achieved freedom from Spain in 1898, he said, the country’s constitution virtually encoded U.S. dominance via the Platt Amendment. That continued after Batista’s coup in 1934 and throughout his regime, until the revolution’s success in early 1959. After that, theUnited States broke off relations and instituted embargos as Cuba developed ties to the Soviet Union.
“The past cannot be returned to, whether it’s before 1959, before 1934, before 1898,” Goff said. “None of those pasts are even remotely possible in the mind of any Cuban today. So the only possible meaning that ‘normal’ can have is in the future, and with respect to other international norms and standards.”
And that ‘normal’ may mean Cuba can finally start to reverse its asymmetric relationship with the United States, Goff said, because China and other countries are making trade deals and offering aid to stimulate the economy.
“The hope and expectation that I saw while I was there was that because the global economy is the way it is now, the United States is not the only game in town like before,” he said. “And the United States knows that.”
Despite their deep knowledge of the region, Goff and Hernandez had experiences that ran counter to Americans’ common perceptions of the country.
“There is a lot more freedom of expression than meets the eye,” Hernandez said. “There is a strong desire to have greater facility in access to the rest of the world. Cubans are more knowledgeable about the global world than people in the U.S. think they are.”
Hernandez noted the strong entrepreneurial activity, evident in taxi services, restaurants and other elements of the tourism industry. She also gained insight into Cuba from learning about how government has managed the housing system.
“The places where people had been renting prior to the revolution became instead available for the people to buy from the government,” she said. “So, what would otherwise had been rent paid to a private owner and would not translate into equity for the renter, became a payment to gain ownership of the property. Hence, since the revolution, Cubans have been slowly buying their own homes.”
While the academic side of the trip was invaluable, both professors said the most rewarding part of the trip was the interaction with everyday Cubans.
“Having the opportunity to interact with people of different professions, in different kinds of living quarters, various religious and ideological inclinations was a very moving humanistic experience,” Hernandez said.
“I spoke to several people in the street and other public settings who were genuinely interested in engaging in our human exchange, of getting to know and understand each other,” she said. “I had many more interactions with humanistic interest than I have had in many years in the U.S., Mexico, and Europe.”