A Study in Diplomacy: Peace Mission Students Visit Cuba
The flight to Cuba took less than two hours. But for Haverford senior Frances Bourne, stepping off the plane in Havana was like traveling through a time warp.
"There were vintage American cars like 1950 Oldsmobiles, just running and running and running for years," Bourne said.
There were other equally striking impressions of Havana - an exotic city inside a socialist country whose borders have been closed to most Americans since Fidel Castro came to power in the late 1950s.
"It's just a beautiful old Spanish city," Bourne said, though she noted she had to overlook crumbling buildings and utilitarian concrete monuments dedicated to Ernesto Che Guevara and socialism "to see the beautiful Spanish city beneath."
Bourne and fellow Haverford students, junior Shira Ovide and seniors CÃ©sar Rosado MarzÃ¡n and Carlos RodrÃguez, spent their spring break visiting Cuba as part of the annual Peace Studies Mission - a tri-college program that sends 12 students from Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore to domestic and foreign places with a history of political and social conflict. In the past, students have traveled as far away as Hong Kong, Ireland, Israel and South Africa and as close to home as urban Los Angeles and Philadelphia, as well as Native-American Indian reservations in Arizona and Wisconsin. At each destination, the students explored with leaders and residents some of the causes and issues underlying their particular long-term conflicts.
Despite Cuba's proximity to the United States, the country presented students with an overwhelming amount of foreign issues and problems. Cuba currently struggles to maintain its socialist political system and its economy despite an ongoing American trade and medicine embargo that has clearly intensified since the fall of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc.
Even though American foreign policy clearly hurts the health and economic situation of the Cuban people, Haverford students said they were amazed by the friendliness of Cubans towards Americans. Bourne said many Cubans were eager to talk with them about the current political, social and economic climate in their country, despite a guarded fear of being punished by the Cuban government.
"I was welcomed as an American and almost no one asked why our government was down on them," she said.
In preparation for the trip each of the 12 peace mission students took a course with Bryn Mawr Professor Enrique Sacerio-GarÃ studying the political and social history of Cuba. While conducting their research, the students not only met with political officials in Cuba, but traveled to Washington, D.C. and to Miami to talk about policy with American politicians and officers as well as members of the Cuban American National Foundation and numerous exiled Cuban resistance leaders. In many cases, these leaders invited students into their homes for dinner and discussion.
Bourne said she realized these contacts were extremely authentic and valuable after reading Gillian Gunn's book, Cuba in Transition: Options for the U.S.
"Out of the 14 on-the-record interviews she had in her book, we had met with four of those people," Bourne said. "This really attests to the high quality of the peace mission. We weren't just any bunch of students going to see pretty beaches in Cuba."