Cuba is a country with a rich culture and interesting history. However, there has been little contact between the island nation and the United States since Fidel Castro rose to power in 1959. The College of Arts and Sciences is actively exploring avenues of scholarly and educational exchanges between the SIU system and academic institutions in Cuba.
“When I came to SIUE, I found there were a number of faculty members who had been to Cuba in the past — some who even had ties with Cuban colleagues,” said CAS Dean Aldemaro Romero. “I am reviving those contacts in an effort to internationalize and diversify CAS.” In the near future, the dean will lead a delegation of dignitaries both from the Edwardsville and Carbondale campuses of Southern Illinois to Havana.
Dean Romero consulted with Paul Sarvela, vice president of academic affairs for the Southern Illinois University system. Sarvela encouraged Romero to pursue an initiative that would allow both SIU universities to interact in a multifaceted capacity with Cuban institutions. Romero then met in October 2010 with representatives of Cuban institutions at the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) Meeting in Toronto, Canada.
The SIU system has connected with Cuba in the past. In 2001, Sen. Paul Simon led a small delegation from SIU to Cuba. Members of this group met Fidel Castro face-to-face. In 2006, 18 delegates from the SIU campuses visited the country and observed their educational counterparts. Other interactions have followed. Associate Professor of Historical Studies Thomas Jordan is a Latin American history scholar. In 2002, he and retired professor Liz Fonseca of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature took a group of students from Edwardsville and Carbondale to Cuba. This is believed to be the only student travel-study program taken by anyone in the SIU system to that nation. Shortly after they returned to America, the United States again tightened travel restrictions to Cuba. Jordan sees great educational value in continuing educational exchanges with that nation.
“Cuba sits in a very interesting nexus, being both Caribbean and Latin American. As such, it offers opportunities for our students interested in the politics and cultures of both regions,” said Jordan. “Similarly, the historic ties between Cuba and the United States (which really date back to the beginning of the 19th century) make it an interesting place to think about U.S. foreign policy, U.S.-Latin American relations and the Cold War, among other topics.”
Dean Romero visited Cuba in January 2011, and met with several key officials there. He is coordinating the establishment of a formal educational exchange with the University of Havana, as well as the National Museum of Fine Arts, among other institutions.
“It was a very positive coincidence that the week before I went to Cuba, the Obama administration lifted many of the restrictions that govern academic exchanges with Cuba,” said Romero. “The timing could not have been better.”
Dean Romero returned from Cuba with draft for a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that now has been approved by both SIU and the University of Havana. Several goals of the MOU include an equal exchange both of faculty and students, particularly at the graduate level, between SIU and Cuba, as well as semester-long programs in Havana and at SIU Carbondale and Edwardsville. The University of Havana also will offer short courses in the summer for SIU students.
The SIUE Choir recently took advantage of this budding relationship by participating in an international choir festival in Cuba. A group of 18 choir students, along with Dr. Joel Knapp, director of choral studies at SIUE, and instructor Carolyn Minear participated in the Festival Internacional de Coros de Santiago de Cuba (International Festival of Choirs of Santiago, Cuba) Nov. 29-Dec. 6, 2011. The SIUE Choir performed before hundreds of people in a variety of venues.
“Our days were just packed,” Knapp said of the experience. “We would sing formal concerts at nights and listen to formal concerts at night. During the day, they would send us out to area schools and some choirs — we didn’t — went to the women’s prison. But, they would just send us out into the city to share the music.”
“We just had a magical time,” he said. “They gave us a place of honor — we did the Saturday night concert, the last concert before the finale — in the main concert hall. Then when we did the final event, we were the next to last choir. They really did treat us well. The SIUE choir performed fantastically. They were incredible ambassadors for SIUE and the United States. We were the only American choir down there,” said Knapp.
The 20 other choirs participating in the festival were from Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Finland and Cuba.A trip of SIU officials to Cuba is in the works, and Dean Romero is hoping to firm up an artwork exchange with the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, in which pieces from Cuba will be loaned to SIU on a semi-permanent basis. Artists and curators would be invited to the U.S. to discuss the work and give workshops. Also, representatives from Cuba plan to be on the SIUE campus in 2012 to fine tune arrangements for a permanent arrangement and cultural center.