A Visit to Trinidad: Sarah

Trinidad_Ocean Trinidad_Rooftops Trinidad_History Trinidad_Streets

As we drove into the 500 year old town of Trinidad, we all couldn’t help but stare. There were people on horse drawn carriages carousing around through the streets. We also saw a bunch of people standing on the side of the roads hitchhiking. We were told that in Cuba it was mandatory for passing cars, that had room, to pick the up and take them in the direction of travel. The exception to that was tourist busses did not have to pick them up.

When we pulled up to our hotel we were all in awe. It was so incredibly beautiful! There were little tiki huts all along the white sand beach, and along the front of the hotel there were mountains. We even watched the sunset go down. It was an all inclusive resort, and the food was really good. I don’t normally eat shrimp but I had a plateful there!

As beautiful as Trinidad is, the history of the town is what makes it stand out to me. The streets were made of cobblestone because they were still built for the horses to walk on. You could even rent your very own burro for the day! We visited a church that was several hundred years old and a staple of the town. The street that led to the church was named after the the fact that it was your last walk in this lifetime.

There was a market with a bunch of people selling handmade goods. I wish I could have bought more. There were paintings, jewelry, little wood carvings, bracelets made of bone, etc.. I had a chance to talk with one of the guys who owned a little stall in the market, and asked him what impact the embargo had on him. Mainly he said Trinidad would benefit from all the tourist dollars. Their economy was struggling and even though he owned his business, he had to give a percentage of his earnings to the government. If anything broke or went wrong with his business (even though the government owned the property) he would have to fix it out of his own pocket. The lack of internet access was a huge deal to the Cuban people as well.

All in all, I met some wonderful, kind, genuine people. They are very misunderstood and its time to break these negative stereotypes we have about them. The people on the beach didn’t even know me but saw I was alone and asked if I wanted to join them. They even took me to a nightclub inside a mountain! It was a great experience. Trinidad’s amazing people, rich cultural history, and breathtaking scenery make it a place I shall strive to visit again in the future. It is a must see!

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Cuba Foreign Investment: Shannon

Sanchez Cuba flag poles Miami 5

Before going to Cuba, I thought I knew a lot about Cuba or at least from what we hear about on our news here back at home. Upon arrival, I knew instantly that I had to erase almost everything I had heard, besides the abundance of old antique cars, and be open to what is really going on down there. I needed to understand how we have affected the Cuban environment in so many ways. I needed to see that my previous thoughts about us as Americans not being able to associate with Cuba, but that the embargo and things we have done to Cuba years ago are still the reason for so many wonderful things to not have the chance to be successful in such a simple beautiful place. After going on my trip and meeting with the economists and professors, my business sense kicked in and I saw what we had done to them and what needed to be done. I also was able to understand what they need, not what we think they need or what we think could help them.

I knew that the embargo from the early 1960’s was still in place but to hear what it is about, then see what affects it has had in person. I felt compelled to further my interest. The first day upon arriving in Cuba, we were met at the hotel by Dr. Jorge Mario Sanchez, an economist who is working diligently to better the economic situation of Cuba. He mentioned that in the words of Raul Castro in 2008, “Our only problem is our economy,” and I saw that as well. I saw that their other plans for their country and although may seem unconventional to Americans, they do take care of their people as much as they can, considering the restrictions we have placed on the world. The lack of infrastructure was an important topic as this infrastructure and stimulation of the economy cannot come from the Cubans alone and everyone recognizes that. Not that we should step in and “save the day” but that they knew they had to get all of their ducks in a row before moving forward with potential foreign investment from other countries. Sanchez gave us the number as 112,000,000,000 as embargo damage done since the 1960’s, a sickening but true number. As the “key of the gulf,” foreign investment is the key to solving many of their problems with the lack of growth in Cuba. He discussed many ways that Cuba could solve their economic problems but foreign investment, all agree, is the only way to move forward feasibly at this time. They do not want to blame the embargo for everything, Sanchez said but they certainly have hit a brick wall over the years with the embargo in place.

The embargo basically, placing restrictions on any country doing business in Cuba or having any interest of any majority in Cuba has made it impossible to grow. The U.S. wouldn’t be where it was today without foreign investment. The embargo basically makes it impossible for OTHER COUNTRIES to do business there too. Stating that it is still a terrorist country and things of that nature really blew my mind and seeing that they are in need of help, not handouts, only what I believe should be allowed. Even if the U.S. did not do business there, they could still allow others to. Cuba is even a founding member of the WTO yet is still not allowed to do anything with foreign investments because of us. As I get frustrated just talking about it and typing this, I remember things that were said by our second speaker which was on our third day there. We met with Dr. Rodriguez from the University of Havana, who did praise the Obama administration for allowing some lifting of restrictions. He then got as fired up as I did discussing in a different tone that they were in fact still considered a terrorist nation with one of the worst classifications. He enlightened us that there are instances in which the U.S. does work with Cuba such as humanitarian issues, weather tracking, etc. He strongly felt that operational cooperation without any further steps in the right direction will not be taken seriously due to the embargo on foreign investment. It really bothered me that it is such a political situation and that it is too “costly” for a politician to fight for these restrictions to be lifted. Companies and businesses are very interested in investment in Cuba from tourism, pharmaceutical, agriculture and many others. Once I experienced this seemingly innocent, trapped in time beautiful place. I would invest if I had a company as they have such valuable resources and have a lot to offer in many ways, but it seems not to be looked at that way by the U.S. or maybe it does, yet the change is too scary.

Foreign investment is the key to Cuba’s not only success but survival and meeting with economists, professors and even just everyday normal working people, it is abundantly clear that something has to be done. To not allow other countries to make these foreign investments has become a huge issue and that is what I have taken home. Being on a trip with all law students who probably understand the actual embargo itself, then seeing it for myself as a business oriented person who cares less about what the situation is, but what it can be. Only with business and these investments, can Cuba have the chances we were given to grow and prosper. I saw that not only is it us affecting the foreign investment, but Cuba itself is in fear of “losing control” with these investments. With current ownership having to be a majority Cuban, many companies do not invest for fear of the lack of their control over their business. As companies fear the U.S. repercussions, it also has the hurdle of the Cuban Government. With us lifting some restrictions and other countries working with the Cuban government, a necessary change will be made. It will be a grand transition and like anything else, it will be uncomfortable but I know will be worth it to all involved. I was lucky enough to experience this at such a crucial time. Cuba will never be like it was when I got to see it in person. It is only moving forward and I hope that the embargo and its restrictions on foreign investments are the first to go. Cubans accepting these foreign investments are going to be a small hurdle when the pros and cons are laid out.

*UPDATE 4/3/14- HERE IT IS!!! It’s finally happening. Upon finishing my blog, days later 3/30/14 an article was published by the BBC titled “Is Cuba ready to open up to foreign investment” was published. I am just now seeing this article and am thrilled to see the headline, thrilled before even reading the article. It’s looking like this foreign investment concessions and the reform taking place can bring economic growth of 5-7% with clear rules and incentives. This is a huge step in the right direction and I am so lucky to get to be a part of all this in a way. Seeing what the current situation was only weeks ago, I see that the change is happening and happening fast. This “significant signal to the international community that Cuba is ready for business,” has drawn business and even me to Cuba. Seeing how they have worked, even under strict Cuban laws and U.S. restrictions, they were still able to be hopeful and find a way to get ready for the business very well considering. The only fear now that Cuba is on board for me and I know all of the Cubans, is that the embargo will not be lifted with regards to foreign investment as quickly as Cuban government is willing to accept the changes. We shall see. I look forward to continuing to keeping up with this issue and keeping people informed on the world around them, even if we aren’t supposed to even look their direction in the eyes of the law.

*photos:
• Dr. Jorge Mario Sanchez talking to the group about what Cuba needs and what they have done. Day 1
• Flag poles in front of the US interest, I would love to explain this as it represents our presence and what our influence is in Cuba. Just a visual symbol of how much they are affected by the U.S. and have been unable to move forward because of our presence.
• Me in front of one of the many Miami 5 signs all over Cuba. It’s a symbol of their support for those who they feel are considered terrorists and how the embargo has caused more than just an economic issue. The sign reading “meeting municipal public power” and “will return” shows their ongoing support for those wrongfully held.

Cuba History: Steven

CubaArt CubaBillboard

Cuba is a country rich in culture, passion and pride. A major part of Cuban history revolves around the M26 movement, or Fidel Castro’s overthrow of Batista, and especially the legendary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Mottos of the revolution and pictures of Che litter the sides of buildings as both art and graffiti, and that revolutionary spirit lives on through the people. Throughout our stay in Cuba there was always an influx of people in the streets, either selling goods or watching as the day passed by in front of them. The Cubans all seemed to be very connected with one another as well, talking and chatting with each other and always very willing to help me practice my Spanish with them. The entire aura of Cuba was that of a country on the brink of something great, and the people seemed to have sense of urgency to reach that summit.

The art that we found in Havana was very unique. Colors and shapes collided on canvas to create city landscapes, while others had different depictions of Che, Fidel Castro or Jose Marti, another influential revolutionary figure. The handmade goods sold around the markets consisted of linen clothes, woodwork, and leather goods. The wood and leather goods were all painted in bright colors, many with Cuban flags and of course the great Che. At one stand there were joke cameras, cars and airplanes that had been made out of used aluminum cans. Another staple throughout the art we saw were the great old cars that inhabit Havana, all painted in the flamboyant colors that one would see on the streets.

The food we were served in Cuba generally consisted of a meat, rice and beans, and yucca. The portions of meat that we had were pork, chicken and red snapper that had just been caught that morning. The rice and beans were also great, as usual, and a staple of many dishes found around Latin America. Our trip also featured a vegetarian, who claims she was spoiled on the trip even though that way of living is virtually non-existent. Their meals were also done in courses; starting out with a salad or soup and bread, moving onto the main course, then dessert and ending with a coffee or espresso. The most different part of eating in Cuba has got to be the morning juices. While we are used to orange, apple, or grape juice in America, the choices of juice in Cuba was extensive to say the least. There was mango juice, papaya juice, some type of strawberry yogurt that was in a pitcher for some reason, and many different options to choose from.

In all, Cuba is not a country that can be adequately explained in words or pictures. It is a paradise that must be experienced if you are to truly appreciate the beauty that nature has bestowed upon that island. The people are warm and welcoming, the cities are lovely and colorful, and the food is very tasty. Just stepping off the plane at the Marti airport is enough to draw a traveler in and make them want to stay forever.

University of Havana: Blaine

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On our trip to Cuba we had the pleasure of touring the University of Havana.  Our tour guide, Nestor, first showed us to the university’s Alma Mater statue.  It’s a grand work of art that resembles the Alma Mater statues at the University of Illinois in Champaign or Columbia University in New York.  We took the opportunity for a group photo.  The Alma Mater is physically positioned so that greets students as they come up the main steps of the campus.  A university tradition is for students to enter through these steps at their first arrival on campus in their first year, and then to refrain from crossing the steps again until graduation.

 

The University of Havana was founded in 1728 and has grown increasingly beautiful ever since.  The campus is full of character.  Each of the original structures is of an elegant, awe-striking marble.  Perhaps the most distinguished view is inside of the Aula Magna, which is a room used for the most special of events.  Again, we took the opportunity for a group photo.  Inside of the Aula Magna is a magnificent collection of frescos.  There are seven separate depictions representing the original seven disciplines of the university: medicine, science, liberal arts, art, thought, literature, and in the very center is Law. Expanding from the original 7 colleges, there are now eighteen.  U of H has a total of 5,000 enrolled students, 500 of which are law students. Law is the most popular area of study, and is therefore one of the most competitive programs.  Attending college without cost students work for the state for 2 years after completing their degrees.  Note that women constitute a majority of law students.

 

Other than art, the campus is also covered with relics of a deeper meaning.  One such treasure is an owl on top of the building immediately behind the Alma Mater.  The bird represents knowledge, while its blue eyes serve as a reminder that the University of Havana was once exclusively white. There is also a military tank located on the quad of U of H, which was a gift from President Eisenhower to President Batista; the tank was captured during the revolution and given to the law school due to the instrumental role of the law students in the revolution.

 

It felt very much like we were walking around Southern Illinois University’s Carbondale campus.  Professors strolled the picturesque, tree laden paths while students lounged and chatted on benches and steps.  Southern Illinois University currently holds a Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”) with the University of Havana, which encourages the two universities to collaborate through a number of avenues, including the exchange of information and material and exchange of students and faculty amongst others.  Our group of Salukis visiting the University of Havana campus could be the first steps to furthering the relationship between SIU and UH, or at least we hope so!

Here are links to additional pictures that Blaine took in Cuba: