My STEP Signature Project was an education abroad trip to study the architecture, landscape architecture, urbanism, and culture of Cuba. The 10 day trip began in Havana and continued through Vinales, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Varadero, Matanzas, ending back in Havana.
Cuba is one of those places that most people have a strong opinion about, but few are particularly informed about. So I’d heard from people who told me about a hellish country where all the citizens are miserable and government agents follow Americans, looking for an excuse to throw them in jail. I’d also heard from a family friend who thought of Cuba as a nice, big Caribbean beach resort. I personally thought that Cuba was some sort of time capsule, and that I should go see it before it changes. Having actually been to the country now, I understand it much better. The truth is, Cuba is a complicated country with a unique history that defies any simple classification.
As a landscape architecture student, I was surprised by the highly social culture and the quality public space. Cubans love to be outside and they love to meet people and socialize. As a result, their cities are built around public squares, Oceanside promenades, and streets that prioritize pedestrians, not cars. Even in a city like Havana, there is a sense that many know each other to some extent. The focus on outdoor space and social interaction was clear in the architecture as well. Most of Cuba is a mixture of Spanish Colonial and Soviet-inspired brutalist architecture, but it is all adapted to be more open to the air and social interaction. Cubans themselves are friendly, smart, and politically informed with varying opinions about their own government. Everywhere we went, they were enthusiastic to talk to us, show us things, and share their opinions with us. Overall this trip shattered my preconceptions of Cuba as well as all of the opinions I’d heard from others before visiting. As one of the most unique places I’ve ever been, it expanded my world view as well.
One of the experiences that revealed something surprising about Cuba was a day trip to the Vinales Valley, an agricultural area. It turns out that a lack of resources due to embargoes forced Cuba to develop some of the most sustainable agricultural practices in the world, such as the use of marigolds instead of pesticides. There is this tendency in the United States to think of places like Cuba as somehow behind, in need of “modernization.” It turns out that in some ways, such as agriculture or, as we learned from our guide, conservation (Cuba has some of the world’s healthiest coral reefs,) the United States may have something to learn from Cuba. As a landscape architecture student, this was a particularly important thing to see as sustainability, the environment, and food production become increasingly important.
Probably the biggest factor in changing my preconceptions of Cuba was meeting people. Sarah Daisy, our guide and a former teacher, gave us all of the talking points in each city we visited, clearly focusing on things that the Cuban government wanted us to hear. However, she always encouraged questions from our group on the tour bus. These question and answer sessions ended up covering everything from the environment, to the healthcare system, to what every day Cubans think of President Trump. Given her pro-government lean she was surprisingly candid, giving us interesting yet little-known information about what works in Cuba and what doesn’t. On our last night in Cuba, I had dinner with our bus driver. He spoke very little English and I, unfortunately, do not speak Spanish, but we found a way to get our ideas across to each other. He actually drove President Obama’s car during the Obama family’s official visit, a fact that he was very proud of. As a child he attended art school for percussion and is a talented drummer. We exchanged family photos, and then we played Six Degrees of Fidel Castro, in which I found out that his wife’s father was Fidel’s wife’s cousin (a relation that, he told me, did not afford him any special treatment.) Both Sarah Daisy and our bus driver were primarily positive when talking about Cuba and its situation, just like the taxi drivers, “Air BnB” owners, hotel operators, and tourism-related workers we talked to.
Another one of our trips was to an art school in Cienfuegos. The kids and teachers that we met at this school were, for the most part, enthusiastic to show off to us. We listened to solos and duets by music students, sat in on a dance rehearsal, and looked at artwork created by both students and teachers. This was a great way to learn about Cuba’s unique school system, with schools that specialize in the talents and interests of their students (art schools, math schools, science schools, sports schools, etc.) It was also inspiring to meet Cuban kids who were excelling in the things that made them passionate. We had a similar experience meeting art university students in Havana.
Of course, I’m presenting Cuba in an entirely positive light. It’s naïve to think of the country that way. Some of the interactions and experiences I had with anti-government Cubans were just as influential in my experience. We visited an art museum in Havana that featured anti-government artwork from various decades. Throughout every part of Cuba it was noticeable how much reverence the people had for Che Guevara, Abraham Lincoln and Jose Marti, and how little they had for Fidel Castro. Apart from in very touristy souvenir shops and on the occasional government propaganda billboard, Fidel’s image appeared nowhere-Che was painted on walls on every street, statues of Jose stood in every central square, and framed pictures of Lincoln hung in many Cuban houses. But my most important experience happened in Matanzas. I was sitting on a bench in the central square when an old man sat next to me, asked me if I spoke English, and then asked me if I was an American.
“I have to tell you. I am old enough to remember Cuba before Castro, and I am a history teacher. Cubans are not happy, they are starving. Even Batista was better than Castro.” This was a good reality check to bring me out of the positive haze the rest of the trip had put me in. It’s easy, especially because the Cuban government is invested in giving American tourists a good impression, to come away from Cuba thinking that everything is great. But it’s equally easy to walk away with some sense of superiority and pity for an oppressed nation. The reality is much more complicated and continues to become more complicated as the increase of tourism makes it clearer that Cubans are not all equal in a society that claims to be built on social and economic equality.
As I mentioned before, the public space and social culture in Cuba are excellent, and were important to these experiences I had. With so much pedestrian access to their city and each other, Cubans can encounter the ideas of others and share their own. This likely played some part in the Cuban Revolution and will likely play a significant part if there is another revolution in the future. Students studying design-related majors are encouraged to travel, because the more design you see, the better designer you are. This seems especially true for a landscape architecture student visiting such a public space-oriented country. This trip will have a lasting impact on how I design for the remainder of my time at OSU and into my career afterwards. From a personal standpoint, it was also very important to have my preconceptions of Cuba challenged once I got to the country, and challenged again once I’d formed a new opinion. In the future I will be less judgmental and more objective.