Full Course Description

When Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean Sea in 1492, Cuba was one of the first places he claimed on behalf of the Spanish crown, making its indigenous peoples subjects of European rule. For hundreds of years, Spain ruled Cuba with a focus on extracting natural resources and providing military bases for its Latin American operations, leading to an influx of foreigners, including slaves from Africa, and the devastation of native populations. When Cuba gained independence in 1898, Spanish dominance was replaced by informal dominance by the United States. It wasn’t until Fidel Castro’s socialist revolution in 1959 that Cuba was able to set its own course in the modern world. However, the revolution struggled to realize its socialist vision, as a subsequent U.S. trade embargo led to Cuban leaders turning to the USSR for support and entangling the country in the geopolitics of the Cold War. Cuba is only just now emerging from those challenges. In this Field Academy course, students will learn about the history of Cuba, its revolutionary activity, and the difficulties faced during the “Special Period” of hardship that followed the collapse of the USSR—the country’s primary supporter—in 1989. Students will begin in Havana, visiting organizations that foster cultural, social, and environmental sustainability, including the renowned Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation for Nature and Humanity, the oldest environmental organization in Cuba. They will also visit a permaculture project, tour wetlands in Playa Larga, visit King Ranch (a cattle operation), and perform service on an organic farm near Santa Clara. They will visit museums, artisans, and community projects and youth programs, including a performing arts high school. They will learn about the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería, and watch (and learn) traditional music and dance. They will hike in the famous Sierra Maestra mountains, visiting the headquarters of Castro and Che Guevara during the revolution. Students will finish in Santiago de Cuba, where they will visit the grave of national hero José Martí, and the Moncada Barracks, the site of the battle that began the armed uprising against United States–backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1953. Throughout the course, students will learn about how this island country, which was relatively isolated for decades, has developed interconnected systems related to culture, society, and environment. With the recent elimination of the U.S. embargo, Cuba is on the precipice of integration into a global economy and society.