While President Barack Obama commented on a historic attempt to re-establish relations with Cuba on Wednesday, Penn State professor emeritus John Nichols reflected on the university’s long-standing history with this country’s isolated neighbor.
Students and faculty have been traveling to and from Cuba for decades as part of research and educational activities in fields as wide-ranging as anthropology, communications and art.
“In many respects,” Nichols said, “Washington is just catching up with Penn State as far as engagement with Cuba, long-standing research activity there and recent increasing student activity.”
Academic relations with Cuba are going so well, Nichols said, he didn’t think a change in national relations would radically affect what the university is already doing. With a special license from the U.S. Treasury Department, students and faculty have been taking chartered flights to the communist nation for a long time and in increasing numbers.
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His first trip to Cuba was in 1977, he said, when he joined the Penn State faculty. At that time, the Carter administration had been attempting to normalize Cuban-American relations, much like the Obama administration’s recent announcement.
Although those attempts ultimately failed, it became the first of many trips Nichols would make.
Once inside Cuba, he said, the differences between attitudes of government and attitudes of people are widely diverse.
“There’s a lot of hostility there, and for good reason,” he said. “But besides the two governments warring at one another, the person-to-person relationships between the U.S. and the Cubans has always been very warm.”
They are fascinated with American culture, Nichols said, and they like and respect it. What Cubans will frequently say is, “You folks from America are really nice people. Too bad you’ve got such a rotten government.”
“Of course, that’s what we’re saying,” he said.
At a human and cultural level, he said, when students visit, they are embraced — literally and figuratively.
Penn State senior Leah Polakoff participated in an international reporting class trip to Cuba in March. She said she was pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the city of Havana and how it seems to be stuck in the 1950s.
“Interacting with people on the street was interesting,” she said. “A lot of the natives aren’t allowed to talk to Americans. We would try to get man-on-the-street quotes, and the ones who didn’t speak English would cross their wrists, showing they would be arrested.”
She also said members of the Cuban homosexual community are not well-respected and aren’t allowed to get married or have children. But work is being done to change their rights.
Students in the international reporting class have developed an hourlong documentary on their experiences in the country, which was broadcast on the Centre County Report.
Nichols said the change he’s seen over the years has been “glacial,” but he thinks part of the Obama administration’s strategy will be to foster more and faster change. He said economic change has been noticeable, with businesses becoming privatized.
“We’re getting out of this Cold War mentality and trying a new approach,” he said. “It has real possibilities not only of improving relations but nudging Cuba toward a path of reform.”