While the American and Cuban governments have argued for more than four months over whether to send one Cuban boy back to Havana, 18 Princeton students have already been there and back in fewer than 10 days.
During Spring Break, the students and three professors traveled to Havana to research and explore the country. The idea for the trip emerged from discussion in a politics precept, but not all the participants were in the precept and many students not in the class were instrumental in planning the trip, said Jill Otto '02, who helped organize the Cuban visit.
The group was hosted by the Center of Demographic Studies in Havana, but the participants stayed in the Santa Clara convent in Old Havana, a facility that recently was restored and converted into a youth hostel, Otto said.
During the week, students attended three-hour seminars presented at the University of Havana on each of four mornings. Lecture topics included the architectural restoration in Havana, the state of the Cuban population and the "greatest pride of Cuba"— health care and education.
"These lectures were extremely insightful and instructional, but they were not the most objective things you could get," said Otto, who studied the "biological solution" — a theory suggesting how the death of Fidel Castro will usher in a new era of Cuban democracy. "A lot of things came up a little bit short," she added, explaining that some of the lectures were limited by government restrictions on what can be said and taught in the country.
Christina Frank '02, another of the trip coordinators, said she was struck by the restrictions on personal freedoms many Cubans face. "There are all these rules about what people can and cannot do, which prevents them from speaking out and from living the lifestyle they might choose," she said. "But at the same time the slogans of the revolution are liberty and independence and freedom from oppression."
To supplement what they learned in the lectures, the students took to the streets, meeting with scholars, members of the public sector, human rights activists and ordinary people going about their daily routines. "Most of our time was spent exploring Havana, just talking to people," Frank said.
Graves Tompkins '02 said the students saw "Elian Gonzales propaganda at every turn, police on every street corner, blocked-out streets and stray dogs everywhere." But these obstacles did not stop them from gaining a thorough understanding of the country during the brief visit.
"Observing firsthand the human toll of socialism and initial stages of social change is an experience that doubtfully any of us will soon forget. Our 10 days in Cuba go to show that the person-to-person contact currently permanently allows for the establishment of powerful human relationships," he wrote in a journal.
Two aspects of Cuba that struck many students were the lack of change in the country since the beginning of the Communist regime and the citizens' disinterest in their country's future.
"It was overwhelming because so much hasn't changed since 1959," Frank said. "But people there are happy and don't seem to mind what's happening around them. Their attitude made what could have been a depressing trip kind of a dream."
"We would walk down the street and see 10 people just sitting on a stoop. It was like people were waiting for change to happen," she said. "All of us can basically predict what our world will be like in five years. But in Cuba, people don't have any idea about what's going to happen. You ask them about the future and they draw a big question mark."
During their time together on foreign soil, the students and teachers forged bonds with each other that might not have been possible while at the University. Frank said of lecturer William Potter '68, "It was an equal partnership. He really became one of us. We were kind of exploring Cuba together."
Sociology and population research professor Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, who also traveled with the group, said she thought the students' initiative was worthwhile and praiseworthy. "The presence of the American students on the island was seen by the people on the island as a most constructive and impressive force," she noted.
"This is a student initiative of which the students should be very proud," she added.