Forbidden. That was our collective sense of Cuba these past 50 years, as trade embargoes and mass mistrust framed relations between our two countries. Yet as journalism instructors, we remained curious.
Our idea to take 20 University of Oregon students to Cuba surfaced as a crazy notion two years ago. We were aware of U.S. State Department policies permitting colleges and universities to engage in cultural exchange excursions to an island that was otherwise off limits. However, we wanted to bring a team of student journalists, a detail we feared would be heavily scrutinized by the Cuban government. If allowed to go, would we encounter rampant suspicion and face limited access? As we planned, we had no idea that our trip would coincide with the historic reopening of Cuba, nor that we would be among the last to witness the country as it was –– before a time of inevitable change.
The arts and music transcend cultural differences, so we chose that theme for our proposed multimedia journey. We sought to identify and produce video profiles on six “Cuba Creatives,” which became our project’s title. Our first task was to identify a travel provider from a short list of tour companies authorized to issue Americans visas under the narrow guidelines of what are known as “People-to-People” educational excursions. We worked with the Center for Global Education, at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, which has organized sanctioned trips to Cuba for 16 years. Simultaneously, we partnered with our university’s Holden Leadership Center, which facilitates alternative break trips to developing countries. The Center helped us navigate matters of logistics, transfers of funds, and risk management.
We determined that spring break was the best time to avoid hurricanes and severe humidity –– two important considerations when timing a trip to Cuba. Our next task was student recruitment. This was not going to be a vacation, and it was important to select serious applicants who were conscientious and would be ready to work. Students had to submit a statement of interest and portfolio samples and were interviewed.
In addition to talent, we wanted responsible and resilient students who were self-motivated problems solvers. The trip cost was $3,500 per person, not including airfare to and from Miami –– our point of departure to reach Cuba. We were able to provide some partial need-based scholarships, and several students launched Go Fund Me campaigns to offset personal expenses. The most daunting pre-trip factor was the amount of paperwork required by both governments. We worked closely with our provider to propose an itinerary that had to be approved by Cuban officials.
It’s just a short half-hour hop by plane from Miami to Havana. However, from the moment you land, you sense you are a world away. Classic cars from the 1950s scuttle about the historic city, and pedestrian traffic and rich aromas are everywhere. A large yellow school bus transported us from Havana Airport to the MLK Center, a stark but hospitable lodging facility we would consider home during our 10-day stay. Barely stopping to drop their bags, within minutes our students connected with locals and joined a pick-up soccer game, setting the tone for our journey.
Our group was intent on experiencing Cuba outside the confines of a tour bus. Despite our prior concerns about access, the “Big Brother” moment we anticipated never occurred. We experienced a significant amount of freedom to explore and encountered quite a bit of candor from Cuban people. Several dignitaries and experts gave us a better understanding of the country’s history and culture, and they didn’t wince when we asked tough questions or challenged their answers. We mixed freely with students and instructors when we visited the University of the Arts in Playa Municipality, the International School of Cinema, and the International Institute of Journalism.
A highlight was a walking tour of Cayo Hueso, a neighborhood in central Havana that is mostly Afro-Cuban. Many in the community practice Santeria, a set of religious practices that mix West African rituals and Catholic imagery.
We were immediately struck by how our firsthand experiences contradicted common American media narratives about the country. While poverty is ever-present, there is no general sense of depression among the Cuban people. We visited markets where Cubans use ration cards to purchase goods and endure long lines to access services. Yet, much like in the U.S., there is an upper class that lives by different standards.
Electronic devices are not the centerpiece of Cuban social interactions. People exhibit close ties with neighbors and enjoy a general sense of community. Young and old are seen out and about at public spaces, exercising, walking dogs, and communing with friends –– despite economic constraints. Cubans, by necessity, are resourceful. A long abandoned Olympic-size swimming pool becomes a soccer field and a boxing arena, where locals and onlookers congregate into the twilight hours.
Moving beyond comforts
Yet Cuba is far from Utopia. The Castro brothers rule with a heavy hand. Strict crackdowns on drugs and crime make it safe for tourism –– but at the expense of some basic human rights. The country also has a number of infrastructure issues to tackle as it begins to welcome more outsiders. Basic plumbing and safe water are scarce, and food choices can be limited.
However, creature comforts were of little concern. Our primary objective was to tell the stories of Cuban Creatives. The MLK staff supported us in pre-identifying local artists to profile: a sculptor, a dancer, an improvisational actor, a chef, a documentarian, and a musician. Before arriving, we established three-member student production teams who vied for their preferred story assignments. Each team had a strong writer, videographer, video editor, and an instructor/mentor.
Students relied on short written biographies to prepare their questions, but had no prior contact with their interview subjects. Teams were given two days alone with their subjects, and the challenges were formidable. We were without cell service during our stay –– forcing us to set designated times to reconnect at unfamiliar rendezvous points. We had to control the urge to overshoot. An overabundance of intriguing faces and historic architecture challenged us to make tough choices when it came to camera battery conservation and file management. Interpreters helped us bridge the language gap.
Our time with improvisational performer Carlos Borbon shed light on some of the struggles that still plague Cuban citizens, despite the country’s outward appearance of openness. Borbon’s brand of performance is psychodrama, designed to reveal intimate truths rather than make audiences laugh. His troupe draws from anecdotes shared by a willing audience and weaves onstage scenarios that can provide an emotional release for dark memories.
Borbon revealed he is openly gay and HIV positive. During our interview, he courageously shared his own experience of being victimized by Cuban police because of homophobia. A week prior to our visit, he was detained and jailed simply for being in a neighborhood frequented by gays.
Did he fear that telling his story to American journalism students on camera might cause him further harm? “Consciously, no; but unconsciously, a little bit, of course,” he said. Yet he was unrelenting, “I don’t think the future is ever going to be easy. But I do believe we have to keep up the struggle.” It was a chilling indication that Cuba still has much to reconcile as it enters modern times.
Taking journalism students to developing nations like Cuba provides them with a wealth of experiences they are unlikely to forget. Immersive learning removes students from the sterile confines of a college campus and challenges them to experience the diversity of real life. We produced a website, and a digital iPad publication, accessible via our SOJC app on iTunes.
Ed Madison holds a Ph.D. in Communication from the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon (2012), where he is now an assistant professor. He is an Apple Distinguished Educator and an Adobe Education Leader. Madison’s multifaceted career in media and journalism began as a high school intern at the Washington Post-owned CBS television affiliate in Washington, D.C. during the height of Watergate. At 22, he was recruited to become a founding producer for CNN. His own subsequent companies have provided services for most of the major networks and studios, including CBS, ABC, A&E, Paramount, Disney and Discovery. The Digital Skills Workshop project will be chronicled in more detail in his forthcoming book from Teachers College Press (Columbia University) on journalism, student engagement and the Common Core. Follow him @edmadison.