Studying Cuba


Students reflect on their semesters abroad.

Last semester, three Harvard students traveled to Cuba, a country usually off-limits to American citizens. Monique Wilson ’09, Morgan Radford ’09, and Hannah Catabia ’09 took part in a program run by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies that sends Harvard students to Cuba every year to “experience the challenges and rewards of Cuban reality first-hand.”

For Wilson and Radford, who are both African American, the chance to experience a country that was a “racial paradise” was a main reason to visit Cuba. “Cuba has been my dream,” said Radford, “because I saw it as a racial melting pot and I wanted to experience what is was like to live in a non-racial state.”

Both women found, however, that race relations in Cuba were much more nuanced than they had imagined. While Radford noted that blacks were not necessarily discriminated against socially, she saw in a Cuba a “huge color hierarchy based on skin color and hair type.”

Wilson repeatedly referred to the overt racist comments made by many Cubans. “It’s funny,” said Wilson, “because they think [black people] are ‘bad in the head.’ But, when you ask them about people specifically they’ll say ‘Oh no, they’re fine.’”

Wilson explained, “They don’t mean to offend, but Cubans still have ideas about race that are very hierarchal.”

Radford also identified a type of racism that sometimes caught her off guard, but that was not necessarily malicious. “I got into a taxi cab and the driver stuck his hand into my hair,” Radford recounted. “He wanted to feel my roots and see if my hair was kinky and concluded that I was a ‘white girl’ with bad hair.”

Even though they would both be considered black at home, the two Eliot house residents had vastly different experiences as dark-skinned women in Cuba. Wilson, who described herself as being “very dark” received a different reaction from many Cubans than did Radford, who is taller and lighter skinned.

“In Cuba there are seven different words for black,” said Catabia. “You’re not either black or white.”

Radford described one incident where a policeman approached her and Wilson in a park. “Monique and I were sitting on a bench and a policeman approached us because he though that she was trying to hustle me. He was suspicious since she was darker than me.”

Still, even though differences in skin color still remain prominent in everyday life, both Radford and Wilson still appreciated how being black in Cuba was different than being black in the U.S. Radford relished not being “among the undesirables.”

“I was in a preferred position because I’m tall and lighter skin,” she explained.

For Wilson, who was still considered black in Cuba, the benefits were more of a matter of “numbers.” Unlike in the U.S. or at Harvard, Wilson said, “There was never a time where I was the only black person.”

A Pforzheimer resident, and the only white student on the trip, Catabia traced her desire to visit Cuba back to one day “as a high school senior wandering around the library” when she happened upon a book written by a Cuban dissident that piqued her interest.

Catabia, who initially viewed Cuba as a country with “streets that were half paved and buildings that were crumbling,” was surprised to find an infrastructure that was relatively intact and a country that “was more developed than many other places.”

“I was also surprised at how developed the biotech industry is,” said Catabia. “For a small country, they [Cuba] produce a lot of things that even first world countries can’t produce.”

Not everything about Cuba exceeded Catabia’s expectations. “I expected to find Cuba more equal,” said Catabia. “In the ‘golden period’ right after the revolution, the ratio of incomes between the poorest and the richest classes was one to four.”

In reality, said Catabia, things are now more unequal. A “double economy,” which resulted from the introduction of the dollar in 1994, created “divisions” between those who had access to dollars and those who were stuck with the official Cuban currency.

Radford agreed, noting a difference between “who has access to foreign money and who doesn’t.”

“Those who had family in Miami who sent them money or who worked in the tourist industry and were paid in foreign currency had an advantage,” explained Radford.

With regard to other social issues, the group saw both the ups and the downs of the Cuban system. “Higher education has its failures and successes,” said Catabia, who noted that while Cubans could go to college for free, people were limited by how they they did on certain tests.

“Cubans don’t get to choose classes,” said Wilson. “You take a test at the beginning and then based on your scores they assign you a track. Your classes are set out for the next five years.”

Wilson, Catabia, and Radford also had first hand experience with the Cuban health care system, as they each fell ill on multiple occasions. While Wilson noted that her hospital experience was pleasant, that the hospital was “nice and clean,” and that the health care she was received was good, she didn’t think that her experience was representative of everyday health care in Cuba.

Although she was impressed by the hospital for foreigners that she and her fellow exchange students used, Wilson said she knew that in the hospitals designated for Cuban citizens, people had to “wait all day” didn’t get the same treatment that she received.

As a group, there was a shared disappointment about the state of Cuban affairs. “I think that some socialist principles are great,” said Radford, “but now I have more reason to believe it [a socialist state] won’t work. I respect the ideas and intentions of socialism but I think that Cuba implements it poorly.”

For her part, Wilson said that while she traveled to Cuba with “high hopes that it would be perfect,” she left frustrated. “There should be a way to make it work that wouldn’t conflict with providing personal freedoms,” she said. Instead, Wilson said she found a Cuban government that was too “paternalistic,” and which didn’t believe enough in “their system” to let it work on its own.

Catabia placed much of the blame for Cuba’s economic woes on the US embargo. She explained that the US embargo does not impede Cuba’s trade just with the US, but rather that because so much of the world’s trade makes it way through the US at some point, many multinational corporations refuse to buy from Cuba. “That’s $300 billion per year that Cuba loses,” said Catabia.

Despite any reservations or disappointments, the students came away from the experience with a much better understanding of the present state of Cuba and of the challenges that it faces in its future.

The next study abroad program in Cuba will occur in the Fall semester of 2008.