By ARDEN IGLEHEART
While the United States only recently opened its relations with Cuba, UT has had a long relationship with the country and is becoming more involved with the rekindling of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
UT, along with USF, will be hosting a conference on José Martí at the USF campus on April 15 and at UT on April 16. The conference, taking advantage of the newly relaxed restrictions, will include 22 renowned Martí scholars from Cuba, the United States and Mexico. It will focus on the recent changes in diplomatic relations between the two countries, and on the importance of Tampa in the Cuban revolution.
“This was the place where José Martí, the founding father of Cuban independence, organized and raised money among the cigar workers in Ybor City,” said James Lopez, professor of Spanish language and linguistics. “So there’s a long, intimate historical tie between Cuba and Tampa particularly.”
The university also offers government and world affairs travel courses to Cuba led by Lopez and Associate Professor of Political Science Denis Rey. The baseball team traveled to Cuba in January 2014 for a cultural exchange program and to play a few teams. Last October, College of Business led a trip of administrators there as part of its Global Access Partnership (GAP) program, organized by Dr. Hemant Rustogi. Tampa is has important ties with Cuba, too, as it was one of the birthplaces of the Cuban revolution. José Marti, a key figure in the revolution, lived here in the 1890’s as he worked on planning and raising funds for it.
“[The GAP program] is aimed at offering members of the Board of Trustees, [the College of Business’] advisory council and community friends an opportunity to learn about the political, commercial and cultural circumstances of other countries,” said David Stern, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs. “This year’s trip, which took 35 travelers, including Dr. Vaughn, Dr. Ghannadian and myself, focused on Havana. We heard presentations on topics such as Cuban-American relations, Cuban economics, [and] the challenges of urban planning and infrastructure in Havana. [We] met with the US Ambassador about the changes being worked on between our two governments, and had chances to learn about Cuban music, dance and visual art.”
The Scarfone Gallery hosted an exhibition of contemporary Cuban art at a few weeks ago.
Lopez and Rey were able to take students to Cuba beginning in 2009 when the Obama administration lifted the restrictions on travel. The students in the Cuba travel course studied at the Centro de Estudios Martianos (Center of Martí Studies) in Havana and learned about the history of the United States’ relations with Cuba, and the writings of José Martí, a key figure in the Cuban struggle for independence.
Charles Martinez, a senior government and world affairs major who took the travel course in May 2014, was surprised how friendly and open the people of Cuba were.
“I, being from Puerto Rico, felt such a rich cultural connection with the island and its residents,” Martinez said. “There’s this one memory I have in which I was talking to someone a group of us ran into while looking for a place to hang out, and he asked me where I was from, and when I told him I was from Puerto Rico, a face of pure glee appeared and he hugged me and said, ‘Boricua [a Puerto Rican], my brother! From the Island of Enchantment and the land of Marc Anthony!’ I was very surprised, and I guess he seemed to notice and he continued to say ‘You and me are brothers, we share the same flag. Puerto Rico and Cuba are the two wings of the same bird,’ referencing a line from Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodríguez de Tió.”
As far as the future for UT and Cuba’s relationship, the university has a lot in the works and hopes to have even more of a closer tie.
“Last fall, UT was chosen by the Institute for International Education to be one of 12 higher education institutions to travel to Cuba to meet with higher education officials there about possible collaborations,” Stern said. “Dr. Marca Bear, the director of our International Programs Office, and I took part in the delegation, and we are pursuing collaborations that have emerged from those discussions.”
The university hopes to continue to create opportunities for students and professors to study or be involved with research in Cuba. Another travel course, Cuba and the U.S.: Then and Now, is being offered during May term.
“We would like to engage other universities, other scholars in Cuba, potentially bring other visiting Cuban scholars to UT, to give lectures or classes and research, and vice versa, bring UT faculty and students to Cuba, to do the same,” Lopez said. “And just to develop academic and scholarly relationships between UT and various scholarly institutions.”
Martinez recommends that everyone visit Cuba.
“I learned that the ideological differences between Cuba and the United States can definitely be overcome with the strong connection that Cuba has with communities throughout the United States and throughout Latin America,” Martinez said, “Cuba is a wonderful place with a great history that they are so very proud of.”