President Barack Obama announced a change
in U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014, ending 50 years of
conflict and isolation. Less than one month later, 17 University of
Delaware students, led by faculty members Persephone Braham and Colette
Gaiter, landed in the nearby island nation.
The Winter Session study abroad program, initially focused on the
art, culture and history of Cuba, also became a lesson in current
affairs and international relations.
Students interacted with residents of Cuba, who discussed their
feelings toward changing relations with the U.S. and the lifting of the
1960 economic embargo.
“Cubans have huge expectations of this new relationship with the
U.S.,” said Braham, associate professor of Spanish in the Department of
Foreign Languages and Literatures and former director of Latin American
and Iberian Studies. “They have suffered a lot under the embargo that
the U.S. imposed in the 1960s. They are really looking forward to things
opening up -- for construction, for innovation, for all that has been
put on hold for so long.”
The UD students became the first group of American students to visit a
Cuban television studio, said Braham, who coordinated the visit through
a colleague whose husband is a director of the most popular Cuban
comedy Living on Stories, in its English translation.
The studio’s leadership was excited to welcome the UD group, inviting
students to visit a second time in order to meet the show’s actors and
watch the show being filmed.
Midway through their study abroad program, students also saw and
engaged with many international news organizations that arrived in the
country as official U.S.-Cuba talks began on Jan. 21.
“Studying Cuba offers an opportunity to look at one of the last
socialist/communist countries on earth,” said program co-director
Gaiter, associate professor of art. “I thought the students would see
capitalism more clearly by experiencing the absence of it. They could
also see how the arts are practiced differently.”
The program included academic coursework, resources and site visits.
Braham taught “Sugar, Salsa and Santería: Contemporary Cuba and the
She described the course, noting that “sugar stands for Cuba’s past
of sugar and slavery, salsa stands for traditional Cuban music, and
Santería is the notion of a syncretic religion … a mixture of both
European and African influences that reflects the mixture that is
evident in Cuban society.”
Gaiter taught a course titled “Art and Design in Cuban Life.”
“History and culture are also inextricably woven into the arts,” she
said. “Afro-Cuban culture, as well as Spanish culture, is evident in
visual representations of Santería and Abakuá icons, gods and figures.
Cubans keep their history and culture alive through the arts.”