Beloit College Magazine

Summer 2013 (August 1, 2013 at 12:00 am)

A Lecture in Havana

July 31, 2013 at 11:19 am

By Oswaldo Voysest

Havana 2

Havana, Cuba. Photo by Oswaldo Voysest.

Almost every time I mention having traveled to Cuba, I get a range of reactions— from surprise to latent curiosity—probably due to a combination of factors. First of all, it may be analogous to the fascination Americans felt during the Cold War toward the communist bloc and all communist countries—an inquisitiveness at heart toward a country technically still viewed as our enemy. Although the Cold War has long been over, Cuba remains the only communist country in the hemisphere, and diplomatic and commercial relations between the United States and Cuba are officially (and for most purposes) nonexistent.

The romantic portrayal of Cuba as an exotic island filled with sensual pleasures, abundant tropical fruits, and high-quality tobacco and coffee, as Hemingway wrote in his article “Marlin Off the Morro: A Cuban Letter,1” also seems to contribute to the idea that traveling to Cuba is both exciting and strange. The long list of celebrities who visited the island decades before, during, and after the Cuban Revolution—Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Marlon Brando, Errol Flynn, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Kate Moss, just to name a few—only adds to this picture.

No doubt, Cuba has a tropical climate with alluring beaches, cities with elaborate Spanish colonial architecture, and a rich musical tradition. All have drawn millions of tourists to visit. In addition, the celebrity of the barbudos (as the revolutionary fighters were known because of their beards when Fidel Castro took power in 1959) and a 50-year-old communist revolution only 90 miles from our shores, also give rise to interest in Cuba.

Mythology aside, Cuba remains one of the most interesting countries to visit. One of my first impressions of Havana—oddly enough for a city—was that time, on occasion, seemed to be standing still. This was not only because of the ubiquitous American classic-era cars, such as 1950s Fords, Buicks, and Cadillacs, or because of an essentially cash society, or because of limited Internet access and poor communications in general. For me, it had more to do with a setting that allowed me to focus on contrasts to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Havana 1

Photo by Oswaldo Voysest.

I could experience a bustling city marked by a slow pace unknown to me in other cities, and much less in a capital city. With its superposition of styles and with sculptures, engravings, and frescoes making a multi-colored spectacle, the colonial architecture stood out right next door to dilapidated buildings and bedraggled apartments and houses. In my mind, this juxtaposition of realities bridged not only the past with the present, but also different rhythms of life, creating a certain portrait of a society that has always lived with its contradictions and its triumphs.

Perhaps this impression is best summed up by the answer a historian friend of mine—a lifelong Cuban resident—gave when I asked how people in Cuba were weathering the world economic crisis. “We’ve always been in crisis,” he told me. He was referring to the U.S. embargo toward Cuba (or blockade, as they refer to it there) since the beginning of the Cuban Revolution and to the various world economic and political crises, including the end of the Soviet subsidies to Cuba when the Soviet Union dissolved.

Is there then some resentment toward Americans? Not really. It may be due to what Graham Greene says in Our Man in Havana: “Havana’s not the place for any prejudice like that.” According to my friend, what characterizes life in Cuba seems to be encapsulated in the phrase, No es fácil (It’s not easy).

My travels to Cuba have been to Havana, where I have conducted research, presented conference papers, and, during my recent visit this past November, given a lecture to students at the University of Havana. I was looking forward with great anticipation to this last presentation because it afforded me the opportunity to interact directly with students in a university setting.

Thanks to the help of an art professor I know in Havana, who contacted the vice dean of the University of Havana’s School of Philology, I was able to give a presentation on how my Spanish 290 class this past fall at Beloit College studied two 19th-century Cuban works. The class I taught was on 19th-century Latin American women literati, and among the works we read was one Cuban novel, Sab (1841), by Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, and a travel narrative written by Cuban author Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo (Condesa de Merlin), titled Viaje a la Habana (Trip to Havana ) from 1844.

My aim was to share with Cuban university literature students how we, in an American institution of higher learning, and specifically in a liberal arts institution like Beloit College, studied two literary Cuban pieces of the 19th century. Since I am not a specialist on Cuban literature, I stressed that my intention for my presentation was not to offer innovative interpretations or new critical insights into these works. I wanted to share with them what we had done in class at Beloit and get feedback for my students and me.

With the aid of a PowerPoint presentation, I first told them where Beloit was, showed them photos of the campus, and explained what sort of institution a liberal arts college is, and how it differs from a university. After this introduction, I spoke about how we discussed the works in class, the sort of assignments students had, and the type of students taking the class.

After the lecture, students had many questions and comments for me ranging from specific questions about the texts to further clarification on the type of education a student gets at a liberal arts college. One student, for example, wanted to know whether a student majoring in economics at a college such as Beloit would take fewer economics courses than a similar student at a university—since a liberal arts education, by stressing a breadth of study, probably meant more courses outside the student’s major than at a university.

I also had some questions for them, specifically about the university system in Cuba. Contrary to our practices, theirs is typically a lecture-centered system where the professor lectures to a relatively large group of students. Then they break up into seminars they describe as a sort of workshop. For example, in a literature course the professor typically spends two to three weeks lecturing about the historical context, the author’s biography, his or her style, etc., followed by a seminar in which the professor asks questions trying to guide the discussion toward a conclusion or concluding view of the work or author.

After my presentation, I walked with the art professor who had helped me so much in securing this lecture. She told me how much she had enjoyed it, and I must say, modesty aside, I was also pleased with the presentation.

As she told me more about Cuba, about how things worked and didn’t work, she concluded that, even with all its problems, she loves the country and would like to stay there forever. When she said this, I thought about what the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca wrote to his parents in a 1930 letter after he had visited Cuba: “If I get lost, let them find me in Andalusia or in Cuba.”

Havana 3 Oswaldo 

Oswaldo Voysest (above, photo by Trevor Johnson'08) is an associate professor of Spanish who co-chairs the department of modern languages and literatures at Beloit. His research focuses on 19th-century Latin American women writers. He has traveled to Cuba five times to conduct research and attend conferences.

Reading List:

  • Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba … and Then Lost It to the Revolution, by T. J. English (2009); Excellent book on the control of the gambling and entertainment industries by American organized crime prior to Castro’s revolution.
  • The City of Columns, by Alejo Carpentier (2010); The English translation can be found in Baroque New Worlds: Representation, Transculturation, Counterconquest; eds. L. Parkinson Zamora and M. Kaup.
  • Castro and the Cuban Revolution, by Thomas M. Leonard (1999); A little dated, but a good overview.
  • Before Night Falls: A Memoir, by Reinaldo Arenas (1994). Autobiography of his years in Cuba by a Cuban writer exiled in the United States.
  • The Reader’s Companion to Cuba, by Alan Ryan (1997); A collection of travel writings, including essays by Hemingway.

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