UNO prof leads students to Cuba to help renovate theater
Follow the UNO group's trip to Cuba. Click here for a link to the group's blog.
LINCOLN — One of the Midlands' most frequent visitors to Cuba hopes a UNO educational and service exchange helps students dance toward a more open relationship with Cuba, which has been under a U.S. economic embargo since 1962.
Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says he has visited the island nation 26 times since he began studying Cuba as the employee of a California think tank in the early 1990s. He took 22 students to Cuba while he was on the faculty at the University of Georgia in 1998.
Since joining the UNO faculty in 2000, he has annually taken groups of students on study-abroad trips. This time, he is trying something new.
The eight-day trip features a service learning project, during which the six participating UNO students will assist Okan Tomi, an Afro-Cuban dance group, in renovating a theater in the Havana suburb of Marianao. The group arrived in Cuba on Sunday.
One of the students, political science and international affairs graduate student Lisa Kent, said before leaving that the service project was “nothing like volunteer work.” The students aren't providing charity, she said. Rather, she says, they will work as equals with Cuban residents on a project of their choosing.
Students' cost for the trip is about $2,500 for airfare, hotels and incidental expenses. They also pay tuition for the four-credit-hour course, which includes classes and homework in the U.S. and in Cuba. As course instructor, Benjamin-Alvarado's travel expenses are paid by UNO.
Benjamin-Alvarado said he is hopeful that the experience will open the door for a wider exchange that brings Nebraska artists and dancers to Cuba — and maybe, someday, Cuban artists and dancers to Nebraska.
Benjamin-Alvarado studies Cuban energy policy, particularly Cuban efforts at offshore oil drilling. If the Cubans find oil, he said, “it will change everything on the island.”
He said he expects U.S.-Cuba relations to improve if the Obama administration wins a second term.
The U.S. should at least consider clearing the way to allow American companies that specialize in oil spill cleanup to work in Cuba, he said.
The embargo was imposed at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, when the Soviet Union tried to place nuclear weapons on the island, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
Fidel Castro, the young man who ousted Fulgencio Batista in 1959, has grown old under the embargo. He relinquished the presidency to his brother, Raúl, in 2008. Benjamin-Alvarado met Fidel Castro during a 2006 research trip.
Over the past decade, both the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Creighton University have conducted Cuba-related academic projects. A group of UNL journalism students traveled to Cuba in 2003. A UNL archaeologist in 2006 conducted a dig at San Juan Hill, the 1898 battle site in the Spanish-American War.
Law and political science professors from Creighton used a 2005 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development to develop a model for settling property claims between Cuba and the U.S. Creighton last year awarded Cuban Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino an honorary degree. In addition, Gov. Dave Heineman has made several trade trips to Cuba.
Still, it is rare for Midlands institutions to send students to study abroad in Cuba. Officials at Iowa State University, for example, say they don't offer Cuban study-abroad trips because of the difficulty in obtaining approval from U.S. authorities.*
The students cited many reasons why they want to visit. Gabriel Gutierrez, a junior majoring in secondary education and Latin America, said he's interested in the educational system.
Art student Alma Becerril Salas, a 2008 Burke High School graduate, said she wants to learn how the isolation of the embargo affects Cuban artists.
Jeff Wattier, a 40-year-old graduate student, quit his job at a printing company and went back to school because of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He wants to contribute more to improving the world, he said, and dreams of landing a job with the State Department. As a UNO grad student, he has visited England, Ireland, Israel, South Korea, Germany and Peru.
He said it is important for Nebraska students to get a glimpse into Cuban society, especially if U.S.-Cuba tensions continue to ease.
“It definitely affects us, what happens there,” he said.
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* Universities do not have to apply for licenses now. They only need a letter from a responsible official that the students will receive credit toward their undergraduate or graduate degree for the trip. J McA