For over a half century Cuba’s romanticized “frozen-in-time” charm has captured the hearts of American daydreamers. Sunshine, cigars, and classic cars paint the picture in our minds eye, but what do we really know about this forbidden island? Over the last year, President Obama and Secretary of State, John Kerry, have pushed to normalize diplomatic relations with the island nation. Embassies have been reopened, travel bans have been lifted, and mail services have been restored. Most recently, President Obama’s visit marks the first US Presidential visit to Cuba in 88 years. As the deep freeze begins to thaw what will we find?
In 2013, I had the pleasure of traveling to Cuba on a cultural exchange visa before the normalization process was officially started in late 2014. I was struck by the crumbling faade that was the Cuban postcard. Mid-century muscle cars were merely shells of once well-oiled machines; beaten bodies, buffed, polished and painted to cover the bruising of use beyond their years. A gutted interior hidden under the hood revealed makeshift and mismatched parts that piece together a puttering engine. This condition is not unique to Cuba’s automotive sector; the county’s infrastructure, institutions, and people have all been impacted by decades of repressive rule and economic embargo. However, this speaks to the resilience of the Cuban people and culture. Cubans are fiercely proud, well educated, and uniquely vibrant.
Universities around the country are taking advantage of this historic opportunity to send students on study tours and cultural exchanges. GBSN member school, MIT Sloan, recently sent 26 business management students to Havana on a weeklong program to witness the ever-accelerating thaw between the United States and Cuba. Luckily for them, President Obama had also booked his ticket for the same week. In addition to having a front row seat to history these students also studied Cuban music, the tobacco industry, and the baseball franchise.
These cultural exchanges are incredibly important and indeed the best way to build the new Cuban-American narrative. Only, genuine interaction between estranged peoples has the power to break down cold war barriers, correct propagated misconceptions, and foster friendship between the Americas. I am optimistic of our shared future as our cold war tensions melt away.
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Brennon Thompson is a Communications Intern for Global Business School Network