A Rare Inside Look at Arts and Culture in Today’s Cuba

WITH THE U.S. GOVERNMENT’S relaxation of restrictions on travel to Cuba last year, 11 CUNY students were able to visit the island as part of CUNY’s first-ever Cuban arts and culture program, in January.

“Cuba is the only country in the world that Americans can’t visit freely,” says Katrin Hansing, Baruch College professor of Anthropology, who has been doing research on Cuban society for the past 15 years and organized the program. “I’ve been thinking about taking CUNY students there for so long, and I knew the changes were going to happen.” So when they did, Hansing was ready to go.

CUNY students with professor Katrin Hansing (center) and members of the Ludwig Foundation on an old Soviet bus in Havana.

Although the island is only 90 miles from Florida, Cuba has been largely off limits to Americans for more than 50 years. The Obama administration eased the travel restrictions in 2011 by allowing college students enrolled in a formal course of study, journalists, and people involved with religious organizations to travel to the communist country.

Organized by Baruch, the two-week program was open to all CUNY students. After lectures in New York, the students traveled to Havana where they took a three-credit course on contemporary Cuban arts and culture. In addition to lectures in the morning, the students made off-site trips in the afternoon to cultural and artistic events, including a Cuban jazz band rehearsal and a ballet performance.

For Richard Minaya, a media studies student at the College of Staten Island, Cuba has always figured high on his list of places to visit.

“I wanted to get into the country and see how it is,” says Minaya. “It’s different from the rest of the Caribbean, and it’s the only country in the hemisphere that’s communist. I wanted to know what it’s like for an average person on the street. I realized how much more complex Cuba really is than I thought. They have freedoms that we don’t think about, like free universities and free medical care.”

The program was organized in conjunction with the Ludwig Foundation, a nongovernmental Cuban organization dedicated to fostering Cuba’s contemporary arts and culture. CUNY students were paired with young Cubans working at the foundation and were provided housing with Cuban families in Havana.

Ana Billingsley, a student at the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College with a major in Africana Studies and a minor in public policy, says the program gave her a better understanding of cultural influences in contemporary Cuba.

“I felt immersed in Cuban culture,” says Billingsley, who’s also a dancer with the Hunter College Dance Company.

“We got to meet and interact with a lot of artists as opposed to just seeing their work. We went to the national ballet, we went to a rehearsal for the contemporary dance company, we went to hear music, and we went to a music rehearsal at someone’s house.”

The pilot program was one that Hansing hopes to continue during Winter Sessions and perhaps extend to a full semester.

“It was unique,” says Hansing. “Students were integrated into Cuban life as much as you can be as a foreigner. It’s hard to do that in a society that’s pretty controlled. It was an unusual thing to happen.”