Cuban trip expands Stetson students' education, family ties
Stetson University student Alisa Ring stands before the National Capitol Building, “El Capitolio,” in Havana on a recent study trip with eight other Stetson students. (Stetson University)
DELAND -- A 1959 phone book and a few photos are all the mementos Jose Velez's family had from Cuba.
His grandparents came to the U.S. during the early 1960s after the Cuban government seized land and businesses.
The Stetson University junior remembered the stories his grandmother told "of a Cuban upbringing," how his great grandfather owned a rum refinery and that his grandfather was one of the first to sell the Bacardi brand.
The 27-year-old promised his grandmother in high school he would return to their homeland one day because his grandparents never had the opportunity. His grandfather passed away before Velez was born and his grandmother died about six years ago when he was in the military.
He had the chance to do just that recently along with eight other Stetson University students and two professors as part of a class titled "Business and Culture in Cuba."
This was the first time since 2004 that Stetson students were able to go to the communist country because the Obama administration last year relaxed travel restrictions for certain religious and educational groups as well as people visiting relatives who are Cuban nationals and tourist groups. Travel restrictions to the country, under an economic embargo for decades, had been tightened.
Velez spent a month researching and talking to family members before leaving during Spring Break. When he arrived, he was able to visit with about a dozen aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides of his family who live in Cienfuegos, Cuba, and bring back photos and recorded messages for relatives in the Orlando area, including stories about his grandfather.
"I'd receive one name or two names and then everything started (coming together)," Velez said. "I was able to reconnect with individuals now in their late 80s and early 90s. I wanted to know my roots and where my family came from. There were so many gaps and lack of pictures and information. Everyone was filling in these gaps."
Velez, who is half Puerto Rican and half Cuban, is grateful to Stetson for the opportunity to be the first in his family to go back in more than 50 years. He visited his grandparents' old house where aunts and uncles grew up and also the building that housed his great grandfather's refinery business.
Velez, whose major is integrative health science, was even able to interview an aunt, who has been a surgeon for 20 years, and hopes to return one day for a senior research project on the public health system in Cuba as compared to the U.S.
He recently shared the photos and recordings with family members and "they started tearing up and crying."
He said everyone in Cuba he met -- not just his family -- was welcoming.
"The people there cherish more toward the things like family and things you can't buy," Velez said. "It gave me a completely different perspective coming back."
Two other students on the trip also met family, according to Bill Andrews, chairman of the management and international business department.
"That was the extra special icing on the cake," Andrews said.
Jarian Martinez, 21, of Pompano Beach, a junior finance and religious studies major, was able to visit with his grandfather, whom he saw briefly last year when his grandfather came to the U.S. He also saw aunts and relatives he had not seen since a vacation to Cuba when he was 13.
"When I was 13, I didn't know too much Spanish. But now I'm fluent so I was able to communicate with them," Martinez said. "(People in Cuba) don't have the privileges and luxuries we have, but they are so happy and celebrate everything they've got."
Overall, the trip allowed students to experience first-hand what they had been learning in the class, Andrews said. It included time in Havana and Trinidad.
"Being on the ground and talking to people about their current life experience is not something that is easily duplicated in a classroom," Andrews said.
He also said the people were "very warm and inviting." Students were able to meet not only with government and business leaders but spoke to people in markets and at the hotels.
Many Cuban people, he said, expressed a "sense of exhaustion" with the current political state in Cuba.
"Life is hard there. It's a pretty poor country," Andrews said. "They are starting to wonder when the benefits of the revolution are supposed to kick in."
Students spoke about their experiences and impressions of the country during class after their recent return. They described the country as underdeveloped, with crumbling buildings and poor transportation. Supplies including medicine are limited and even a small piece of toilet paper in a restaurant costs money.
One restaurant asked the students to trade extra articles of clothing for food, which they did.
It was not uncommon, students said, to see children running around with no shoes and many adults waiting on the side of the streets for transportation. Many houses had no running water and the hotel they stayed in had power issues daily.
Stetson junior Betty Gonzalez, 30, of Port Orange, an international business administration major, said she was surprised to hear that people in Cuba "do want visitors from the U.S." and were "more open than I would have thought."
The students also pointed out how many spoke about the U.S. embargo and wanting it lifted.
"For Cuba, the relationship with the U.S. means the world," she said. "It was interesting to learn their perspective."
Alisa Ring, 22, of Lake City, a business management senior, said one of the highlights of the trip was going to the Museum of the Revolution, which is the former Presidential Palace. She said she and the other students could see the bullet holes that lined a stairwell from a 1957 unsuccessful assassination attempt.
"Being in Cuba feels like traveling back through time with all the antique U.S. cars about the streets, having no cellphone service and little way to connect to the outside world," Ring said. "The small neighborhood markets and then going to places such as the museum and being able to see and feel the holes from the bullets, just makes the history more alive and tangible."
She teared up in class describing seeing families say goodbye to one another at the airport not knowing if they'll ever see one another again because of travel restrictions.
Chris Tobler, a Stetson assistant professor of finance, who was also on the trip, said overall it was "a real eye opener for students" to see how things are done differently in other parts of the world.