Lisle, Illinois ~ Few Americans have ever set foot on the Caribbean island nation of Cuba, but this spring more than a dozen Benedictine University students toured the countryside and greeted its people – liberties that have remained off limits to American tourists since 1962.
While most Americans tend to think of Cuba as an impoverished nation with an oppressive communist-controlled government, Benedictine University students got to see another side of the country under a special license granted to research institutions and university students.
What they saw was a Cuba that has transformed itself during the last few decades into a model of environmental sustainability and self-reliance, and a country with a vastly improved quality of life with average life expectancy and literacy rates on par with the United States.
The transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his brother, Raul Castro, in 2009, has raised even more questions about the country’s future. Cuban nationals are considering limiting social services in favor of supporting more capitalistic endeavors, according to Jack Thornburg, associate professor of Anthropology at Benedictine University.
“This is an exciting time to be visiting Cuba,” Thornburg said. “Cuba is undergoing changes not seen since the success of the revolution of 1959. Individuals are demanding and pushing for greater economic and social autonomy from the state. Under the new economy, there appears to be a growing social division based on economic opportunity. They want equal opportunity and social and economic justice within a new revolution for themselves and without interference from outside forces.”
Benedictine students visited the cities of Havana, Santa Clara and Sancti Spiritus, where they toured small urban organic farms and large-scale agriculture operations which utilize sustainable farming practices without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
Students also visited medical clinics and schools, neighborhoods, eco-villages, the University of Santa Clara and a center for sociological research, where they met with students, researchers, artists, doctors and restaurant chefs.
In 2006, the World Wild Life Foundation cited Cuba as the only country in the world that met standards for sustainable development, and students like Stephanie Lindgren said she could see why.
“The Cuban people practice the concept of reduce, reuse and recycle far beyond just setting out a blue bin on your curb once a week,” Lindgren said. “I observed the bottoms of glass bottles being used as windows and whole bottles and old coffee cans used as flower planters. Oil drums became trash receptacles, egg cartons became places to grow seeds and even old spoons were turned into jewelry. There was a conscious effort everywhere we went to reuse what people had that here at home we would regard as rubbish.”
Cut-off from other nations, Cubans had to compensate for their inadequate food supply and developed a self-sufficient system where they utilize whatever space is available – small plazas, yards and rooftops – to grow their own food. In many neighborhoods, 50 percent of Cuban’s diets revolve around local gardens.
Caitlin Bettisworth and Joseph Lagattuta said that while Cuba lacks access to advanced health care equipment and medicine, they were impressed with the country’s free health care and educational system. However, they were both concerned about the U.S. trade embargo and its affect.
“They have succeeded in some aspects with free health care and education,” Bettisworth said. “But the embargo has created a lot of problems for them. For example, to get chemotherapy treatments, they have to pay two times more than what we pay here.
“One of the things I found really cool about Cuban medical schools is the education is completely free,” Lagattuta said. “American students leave medical school with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. Cuban medical students are also guaranteed a job as soon as they graduate – they are placed in a three-year program where they will go to a remote area of the country to provide health care.”
Students said the experience ran counter to what they had learned and heard about Cuba, and felt they got a more realistic view of what life is like there by visiting the country and meeting its people.
“My experience in Cuba was truly remarkable, and it painted a very different picture of what I have been taught about this island state,” said Mohammad Dogar, a senior majoring in Health Science. “In the past, I heard that Cuba was under a dictatorship and that there was mass oppression of people.
However, talking with the dozens of people I met directly, Cubans have shown me there’s a vibrant civil society that enjoys many modern liberties. This experience taught me you should research before you formulate an opinion and that you should never accept the status quo.”
Although not planned as part of the excursion, the students’ trip coincided with a visit from Pope Benedict XVI, who said Cuba was poised to lead a renewed society but that economic measures imposed from outside were unfairly burdening its people.
Thornburg has taken students to other Latin American countries including Venezuela, Costa Rica and Mexico. He plans on taking another class of students to Cuba next year.
Students who went on the 10-day tour of Cuba were: Nimeh Abualleil, a junior majoring in Health Science and International Business and Economics from Palos Hills; Stephanie Analytis, a junior majoring in Biology and Chemistry from Plainfield; Luis Bazan, a senior majoring in Physics from Willowbrook; and Caitlin Bettisworth, a junior majoring in Health Science from Batavia.
Also, Leesandra Contreras, a freshman majoring in Psychology from Plainfield; Stephanie Contreras, a junior majoring in Health Science from Plainfield; Mohammad Dogar, a senior majoring in Health Science and International Business and Economics from Lombard; Angela Flores, a senior majoring in Psychology from Chicago; and Joseph Lagattuta, a senior majoring in Health Science from Park Ridge.
Other students on the trip included Stephanie Lindgren, a sophomore majoring in Environmental Science from Lisle; Cecilee Mazur, a freshman majoring in Marketing from Naperville; Shana Nurceski, a sophomore majoring in Biology and Spanish from Westmont; Chandra Palmer, a non-degree seeking student from Woodridge; and Ashley Patel, a sophomore majoring in Health Science from Naperville.
Also, Stephanie Rodriguez, a junior majoring in International Business and Economics, International Studies and Management and Organizational Behavior from Hoffman Estates; and Amel Tobaa, a junior majoring in Biochemistry/Molecular Biology and English Language and Literature from Lombard.
Other students on the trip included Alexis Wadowski, a junior majoring in Physics and Finance from Oakbrook; Tariq Weaver, a senior majoring in Political Science from Chicago; and Maritza Zepeda, a sophomore majoring in Nuclear Medicine Technology from Bolingbrook.
Benedictine University is an independent Roman Catholic institution located in Lisle, Illinois just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois and Mesa, Arizona. Founded in 1887, Benedictine provides 55 undergraduate majors and 15 graduate and four doctoral programs. Benedictine University is ranked No. 1 among the country's fastest-growing campuses between 2002-2012 in The Chronicle of Higher Education's list of private nonprofit doctoral institutions, and Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the fourth consecutive year in 2014. Benedictine University's Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) program is listed by Crain's Chicago Business as the sixth largest in the Chicago area in 2014.