Hopkins students get firsthand view of Cuba's culture Participants say journey changed their perceptions of country and its people

January 24, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN FOREIGN STAFF News intern Brenda Santamaria contributed to this article.

HAVANA -- As Pope John Paul II was addressing the youth in Cuba yesterday, a group of young scholars from the Johns Hopkins University were here to learn for themselves what Cuba is all about.

The 16 students, mostly Latin American studies majors, have been in Havana since last week as part of Johns Hopkins' Cuba Exchange Program. Established in 1977, it is the longest-running academic exchange between Cuban and U.S. scholars.

They gather each day in an old mansion with gold plaster walls and white marble floors, wearing cut-off shorts and sandals, lugging book bags and notebooks, to learn of Cuban reality from its experts.

"I think it's very important to maintain cultural contacts," said Dr. Wayne S. Smith, a visiting professor of Latin American Studies at Johns Hopkins who coordinates the Cuba Exchange Program.

"If we're ever going to understand each other, it's going to be through these kinds of exchanges," said Smith, who served as chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba from 1977 to 1982.

Smith, who resigned from the State Department in 1982 over the Reagan administration's policy toward Cuba, also served in the U.S. Embassy in Havana from 1958 to 1961, the years immediately before and after Fidel Castro came to power. Smith has been active for more than a decade in the movement to lift the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Through the Cuba Exchange Program, four doctors and two nurses from Cuba will come to Baltimore this summer to study epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. And Franklin Knight, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins, will come here in early spring to lecture on Cuban immigration, Smith said.

This is the second year that Hopkins students have traveled to Cuba for an intersession course as part of the broader academic exchange program. Classes are held at the Fundacion Fernando Ortiz, an independent academic organization located next to the University of Havana.

The program offers students an opportunity to study a country with a unique culture, history and political system, said Eduardo Gonzalez, a Hopkins professor of Spanish language and literature who is also accompanying the group. "This is a country that is rather peculiar," he said. "Even the pope finds it peculiar."

For the Hopkins students, who have been listening here to lectures on the role of sugar and tobacco in the Cuban economy, the trip has corrected many misperceptions they said they had about the Communist country.

"Before we came here, we had a one-dimensional view of what Cuba was like," said Anjali Kaur, 21, a senior from Milwaukee.

"I think the most striking thing is Cubans are normal. We heard in the U.S. about Cuba, the evil empire, but they're just like us. A little poorer, perhaps."

Indeed, the economics of Cuban life, where the average monthly wage is the equivalent of $10, startled some students.

"The $10 we spend on one meal is all they make for a month," Kaur said. "With the $1 tip we left, they wouldn't have to work for three days. It affected me greatly."

For Lynette Gueits, a 21-year-old senior biology major from Bronx, N.Y., meeting fellow students from the University of Havana -- "students from two opposing nations" -- had the most impact.

"It was a simple exchange about U.S. and Cuban relations," she said. "It was so amazing to sit there and be able to share our views. It's amazing our leaders can't do that."

"They asked us what coverage of Cuba is like in the U.S. and

about how they are perceived," Gueits said. "We told them as far as the U.S. is concerned, they're not that high a priority."

There were other eye-opening events, like when they found out that an ordinary Cuban couldn't get into the Habana Libre Hotel where they are staying. The hotels are only for foreign tourists, and Cubans are turned away by hotel security guards with dark blue blazers wearing earplugs connected to walkie-talkies.

Some parents of the Hopkins students fretted when they heard where their children would be spending winter break. "My parents didn't want me to come," said Tara Leone, 19, a sophomore International Relations major from Short Hills, N.J. "It's a Communist country. They didn't think I'd be safe."

But for Patrique Campbell, a 21-year-old international relations major from Baltimore, the streets of Havana feel safer than her hometown.

"I feel like I can walk around here at 2 in the morning and not be assaulted," she said. "I probably would be in Baltimore."

The trip is not all work. As Smith concluded a lecture yesterday morning on Cuban-U.S. relations, the pope was beginning his homily to Cuba's youth. But that was one discourse the Hopkins students were going to miss.

They were headed to the beach.

Pub Date: 1/24/98

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