Cuba — there is no place on earth that is so close to the United States yet so far. Only 90 miles of water separate the two countries, but the few U.S. citizens who are permitted to travel to the neighboring island discover a very different culture, political system, economic situation and way of life.
Cuba also is diplomatically distant. Until President Barack Obama recently began the process of normalizing inter-government relations, Cuba was among a small handful of countries with which the United States did not have diplomatic relations. And, despite current negotiations seeking to iron out their many disputes, the United States still imposes a strict economic embargo against Cuba and prohibits most of its citizens from traveling there.
Perhaps because it is a forbidden fruit, Cuba is an object of fascination among many in the United States. Media attention to Cuba far exceeds any U.S. national interest in its 11 million people and communist regime and breeds stereotypes and myths that perpetuate hostile relations between the two governments. But times may be changing.
Several years ago, Penn State launched an initiative for academic engagement with Cuba intended to bridge the gap of misunderstanding between the two countries. As part of that initiative, the Penn State baseball team made a historic trip to Cuba last month for exhibition games and an educational experience. Penn State was the first U.S. team — college or professional — since the Cuban revolution to play multiple games against National Series teams (the highest level of Cuban baseball) and to win a game. In addition, the players visited important historical and cultural sites, attended lectures by leading Cuban scholars and traveled in the countryside to get a glimpse of real Cuban life.
Through competition, player-to-player engagement and educational programming, the Penn State players learned about the history and culture of the country that has produced some of the best baseball players in the world, observed first-hand the difficult conditions in Cuba, and now are better prepared to draw their own conclusions about the complex country.
Symbolically, the final game of Penn State’s baseball tour was played at the “Victory at the Bay of Pigs Stadium” in the city of Matanzas. The Bay of Pigs was the infamous, ill-fated, CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba in 1961. Instead of overthrowing the Cuban regime as they had anticipated, the invaders were quickly defeated in what history books describe as one of the most embarrassing U.S. foreign policy failures. And the debacle all but guaranteed the decades of hostility between the two countries that were to follow.
Prior to the game at that stadium, the Cuban and Penn State teams stood at respectful attention during the national anthems of both countries as the Cuban and U.S. flags flew side-by-side over the scoreboard. A small step toward greater understanding.
OLLI at Penn State — open to adults who love to learn — will be offering more than 100 courses this spring semester, including Understanding Cuba, taught by John Nichols. To receive a free spring semester catalog, call OLLI at Penn State, 867-4278 or visit olli.psu.edu.
John S. Nichols is a professor emeritus at Penn State and chair of its initiative for academic engagement with Cuba.