Cuba at the Crossroads (Performance and Culture in Cuba)

Name: Nicholas Smith (Coco)
Type of Project: Study Abroad (Performance and Culture in Cuba)

In December I participated in the study abroad program, “Performance and Culture in Cuba.” This program attempted to contextualize the Cuban arts, from music, to theater, to film, to dance, within the history and political context of Cuba. We interacted with leading artists in Cuba and watched a variety of performances to learn the particularities of the Cuban arts scene.
This visit to Cuba altered both my views on politics and art dramatically. As a socialist, I was particularly fascinated by the political system in Cuba. Though I held many critiques of the Cuban system, I was interested to see what progressive government looked like in practice. Experiencing Cuba firsthand really left me with more questions than answers. On the one hand, it was inspiring to be in a place with a progressive government. Seeing how life was like for people who did not have to worry on the day-to-day about procuring food, water, shelter, healthcare, and the basic necessities of life opened up new vistas for me. But, I was also disillusioned by the repressive political atmosphere, the political apathy of Cuban citizens, and the bleak future that seems to be impossible to avoid in tomorrow’s Cuba.
Engaging with artists there was also inspiring. I was opened up to a new world of culture which I had had little knowledge of before. I could not help but think of the many complex relationships between history, politics, and artistic production, and I also contemplated my own place as a musician in the United States.
In regards to my political insights, interactions with government officials, artists, and just everyday people gave me a fuller picture of Cuba than I could have had looking from the outside. I saw a presentation from a Cuban architectural planner on the future of Havana which was very enlightening. He discussed the current problems of lack of funding for keeping Havana’s aging architecture in shape. One of the only ways to solve this problem would be to open up more to foreign investment, and in the future, investment from the U.S.. However, the planner understood that that kind of money comes with strings attached. If Cuba opens up to foreign investment, it risks opening up the country to new levels of inequality and the gentrification of its beautiful and egalitarian housing.
I also spent a lot of time talking with our Cuban guide about Spanish phrases, the politics of Cuba, and various cultural eccentricities there. Having direct access to a Cuban person really helped me connect with what was around me. I debated the ups and downs of the American and Cuban forms of government with my guide and learned much in the process. Though I was critical of Cuba’s form of socialism from the beginning, I also idealized it to a certain extent. Learning from a Cuban who knew nothing else helped strip that naive from me and see the good and the bad more clearly.
I was also impacted by the prevalent street art and performance which abounds in Cuba. If you walk to the boardwalk by the sea, there will always be musicians hanging out and playing music as groups, performing for their own enjoyment and for the passerby. Street performers even do dance and other more rehearsed musical forms out on the streets. Seeing the universal embrace of art there pushed me away from interpreting everything within a strictly political point of view. All to often, the lives of common people in other countries are seen as heavily politicized, as our engagement with these countries is only on the level of political leaders and events. However, in every country, people drink and eat, struggle, live and die, and find ways to enjoy themselves in between. I couldn’t help but be inspired by the creativity and openness of the average Cuban people I ran into on the streets on any given day.
Visiting Cuba through the Performance and Culture In Cuba study abroad program has developed me in very important ways. As a history major and aspiring professor, engaging critically with the culture, politics, and history of Cuba was a one of a kind experience. In academic settings, it is quite easy to understand events and people abstractly, through a narrow and scholarly view. However, to have that visceral experience of being in a country, and engaging directly with the people, is an essential experience when grounding a historical perspective. Even though the writing of history often takes place deep within archives, libraries, and books, the events of history are always concrete and lived. Visiting Cuba made clear to me the nuances of US-Cuba relations, anti-imperialism, and socialism of Fidel’s type.
And as a student who wishes to research the complexities of the socialist tradition, I could have not had a more transformative experience. When one gets beyond the simplistic anti-communism still common in the Western imagination and academia, there’s a rich history and experience coming out of the various movements for socialism throughout the world. I hope to write a senior thesis and research more in depth the complexities of socialism, and visiting a socialist country was really essential for me to get a grasp of the practical implementation of socialism.
And finally, visiting Cuba was enriching for me because of the understanding of culture it gave me. Hearing from artists gave me a real appreciation of Cuban performance and music, which is a good in-itself. But also, understanding culture will be essential for me in studying history and navigating academia. Though I only spent a week in Cuba, my whole outlook on my future prospects has expanded considerably.

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