As Cuban-American Relations Begin to Shift, Study Abroad Trip Anticipates a Changing Cuba

Manhattan College is offering its third-ever study abroad trip to Havana, Cuba this spring break just as the U.S. and Cuba attempt to move toward normal diplomatic relations for the first time in over 50 years. Organizers of the trip say that this trip will be an opportunity to witness Cuba before it is slowly changed by new U.S. economic and political relations.

A Manhattan College student studying in Cuba meets a Cuban student.  Laura Redruello/Courtesy
A Manhattan College student studying in Cuba meets a Cuban student.
Laura Redruello/Courtesy

“I think that small changes are going to happen,” Laura Redruello, Ph.D. and associate professor of Spanish, said. She is one of two faculty members leading the week-long trip to Havana that will provide Spanish, sociology and independent study opportunities to a mix of students and faculty. “Every year is a different Havana. For me, it’s a country that’s always changing.”

For students studying on this trip, this means they have the opportunity to experience Cuba in a moment when the world is watching Cuba very closely.

The organizers said they had to apply for a license to take an academic group to Cuba for educational purposes. The U.S. Department of State website outlines various travel licenses that different groups can apply for and spending limitations, and states that tourist travel to Cuba is currently strictly prohibited for U.S. citizens.

Lawmakers are now looking to end these strict limitations on economic interaction and travel between the U.S. and Cuba. New diplomatic relations between the two countries could mean fewer travel restrictions, U.S. companies popping up in Cuba and more contact between citizens of both nations.  But their political history is complicated and sensitive, and the future of diplomacy with Cuba is not entirely certain.

“Any further changes to U.S. policy towards Cuba and additional sanctions relief must be conditioned on the Castro regime’s actions,” Democratic Senator Robert Menendez said in a statement responding to the bill he and other lawmakers wrote that would end all U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba.

“There’s a lot of optimism,” Ricardo Dello Buono, Ph.D. and professor of sociology, said. He is also leading the group with Redruello and believes that recent developments in diplomacy between the U.S. and Cuba will lead to small, gradual changes in the country.

Given the current travel circumstances with Cuba, planning the study abroad trip was no small feat.

“The logistics are more complicated than a trip to another typical country because of all those other restrictions,” Elen Mons, study abroad coordinator, said. Aside from applying for a license to enter Cuba for academic purposes, the program’s leaders had to work with certified travel agencies to get the trip to Havana planned.

“Because of the embargo, we cannot pay directly to Havana,” Redruello said. “We pay the agency here that has a license.”

Having a middleman in the process and chartering a flight to Cuba drives up the price of the trip. The week in Havana including excursions, some meals, roundtrip airfare and the class itself costs several thousand dollars.

“The price sometimes is a problem,” Redruello said, which she said explains why some colleges and universities are not able to put together Cuba study abroad programs for their students at all.

Despite the cost, Redruello said she thinks the experience of Cuban culture should be the highlight of the trip.

“Everybody knows about the politics,” she said. “But just the music, the architecture, the food, the history,” are what she encourages students to seek out.

“They start to build real relations,” with other Cuban students, she said, which leads to a breaking down of barriers between them.

“For a long time, there have been a lot of misconceptions about Cuba that have sort of been prevailing in the U.S. for a lot of obvious reasons,” Dello Buono said. “We tried to create these study abroad programs to poke the bubble.”