By Louis Kyridakoudes
This past December, I led a delegation of 14 people from the Oral History Association on a week-long tour of Cuba. Despite recent changes by the current administration intended to make it more difficult to travel to Cuba, American citizens can still travel to the Caribbean’s largest island. Traveling with OHA colleagues and friends made for a week of deep engagement with the people, culture, art, music and history of Cuba.
Sixty years after the revolution, Cuba is at a crossroads. The Cuban people face the challenges of preserving the revolution’s gains in face of a global economy and a still-hostile U.S. policy shaped by the viciously punitive U.S. embargo and the 1995 Helms-Burton Act. We traveled to Cuba under the U.S. Treasury Department’s “Support for the Cuban People” designation.
We worked closely with Charles Bittner to organize a week’s visit of deep engagement with contemporary Cuba that allowed us to avoid what the eminent historian Louis A. Pérez, Jr. has criticized as “selling Cuba” to American tourists. Bittner, a sociologist who has taught at Southern Methodist and St. John’s (N.Y.) Universities has been organizing cultural and scholarly tours of Cuba for more than 20 years, first in partnership with The Nation magazine and now with the Intercultural Travel Group.
For our trip, he organized an itinerary that connected our travelers with activists, artists, musicians, public historians and scholars who spoke to what Cuba is today and to what it is becoming.
We explored Havana’s thriving art and music scene. Visits to Taller Experimental de Gráfica, an art cooperative focused on the practice of 19th century printmaking techniques, and other gallery and artist workshop tours allowed us to meet Cuban artists and learn about their work.
An evening with Frank Delgado, Cuba’s leading folk musician and troubadour gave us a unique insight into the connections between the revival of Cuba’s traditional musical forms and contemporary activism. A visit to the home of the Afro-Cuban rapper and activist duo, La Reina y la Real, led to an impromptu performance in their living room.
We explored contemporary Cuban issues with leading experts and intellectuals. A tour with an architectural historian allowed us to learn of Havana’s rich architectural history and the challenges of historic preservation. Seminar meetings with the eminent University of Havana sociologist Marta Núñez gave us a deep insight into gender and sexuality issues in contemporary Cuba.
Literary critic and author Susan Haus shed light on Cuba’s contemporary literary culture. Our visit to ELAM, the Latin American Medical School, displayed Cuba’s strong commitment to training the next generation of medical doctors. ELAM draws students from across the Americas and United States. We met with four of the nearly four dozen American students enrolled at ELAM to discuss their commitment to social justice through the practice of medicine.
We also traveled to Cuba’s southern coast, visiting the cities of Cienfuegos and Trinidad. In Trinidad, a United Nations World Heritage site, we met with city historian and historical preservationist, Nancy Benitez, who shared her knowledge of the city’s history and contemporary efforts to restore its historic city center. Trinidad’s thriving folk art and traditional musical culture was captivating.
Cuba now has a dynamic private sector of restaurants, small inns, small shops and galleries, jazz clubs and contemporary music venues. All of this amid the beauty of Havana, city that has just celebrated its 500th anniversary of its founding, and the Cuban countryside made for a memorable week.
We are working with Charles Bittner to plan another OHA-sponsored trip, Jan. 3-10, 2021. You can learn more about the details and costs at the Association’s website https://https://oralhistory.org/.