A week in Havana transforms Virginia Tech students
From its dazzling beaches, coveted tobacco, and inventive people, to its communist regime, Cuba is a study in contrasts.
While the island nation's politics may be a conundrum, Cuba is an exceptionally resilient nation and a full-sensory experience. Just ask Kim Niewolny, an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who led a study abroad experience during spring break to explore food security and technology, land rights and distribution, gender and racial equity, and community mobilization for a just food system.
“Last summer, my Ph.D. student, Lia Kelinsky, expressed an interest in studying food security and food sovereignty abroad,” said Niewolny. “There is a grassroots movement of people organizing to change the Cuban food system to be more resilient and socially equitable for citizens.”
Niewolny collaborated with Joseph Scarpaci, director of the Center for the Study of Cuban Culture + Economy and professor emeritus in the Virginia Tech Department of Geography, to lead 13 undergraduate and graduate students and one faculty member on a week-long study abroad. Scarpaci, who has journeyed to Cuba more than 100 times, served as the group’s organizational liaison and was instrumental in coordinating the trip – a feat requiring diplomatic dexterity as a result of adversarial relations between the two countries.
The republic’s complex history and proximity to the U.S. make it an ideal case study. Like many Caribbean states, the nation of 11.48 million has countless stories to tell, many of them predating Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1492. For the purposes of Niewolny’s adventure, 1989 was a defining year for modern-day Cubans, marking the beginning of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Just three decades prior, Fidel Castro had assumed power following the Cuban Revolution and had formed an alliance with the superpower. By the early 1990s, however, economic depression in the wake of the Soviet collapse left Cuba with severe shortages of petroleum and other commodities, a time known as the Special Period. Coupled with a highly restrictive economic and trade embargo imposed by the United States in the 1960s – one that remains in place today – the country was crippled economically.
These circumstances transformed Cuba’s industry, health care, and agricultural systems, leaving the populace without access to many basic goods and commodities. Yet, what could have been the republic’s death knell galvanized its people, inspiring innovation in the form of land reform, cooperatives, sustainable agricultural practices, and decreased use of machinery – and this intrigued Niewolny and her students.
“For me, having a country that was in essence conquered time and time again — the Spanish, the U.S. through sanctions, and then the Soviet Union – raised the question: ‘What does it mean to be Cuban?,’” said Katie Ledwell, a junior from Ashburn, Virginia, majoring in animal and poultry sciences. “I thought about this every day because the answers presented themselves in so many different and unique ways. You can even see the history of the Cuban people reflected in Havana’s architecture.”
The students began their journey in the city of Havana, specifically Old Havana. The famed sector has been eulogized for its eclectic style and Old World Moorish-inspired townhouses, which bloom in a profusion of tropical sherbet pastels. Rather than looking florid, the city’s stately, if dilapidated, architecture and exuberant color palette reflect a time-worn elegance as if paying homage to an era gone by.
“Havana looks like New Orleans meets Spain meets the Soviet Union. There is such a divide between public and private institutions. You will see this beautiful Spanish architecture on the private side and concrete with graffiti on the public side,” said Ledwell, who was struck by the city’s pre- and post-Soviet aesthetic.
A daily morass of cars, honking, shouting, singing, and music add character and textural dimension to Havana’s spirited cityscape. For Robert Bass, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education, from Greensboro, North Carolina, the sounds of Cuba were most memorable. He considered the music “transcendent.” The longtime musician, along with fellow music aficionado Courtney Lawrence of Fayetteville, North Carolina, also a doctoral student in the program, befriended a group of Cuban musicians and created something special in the process.
“I went to a local souvenir store and met a guy named El Guerrero. We began discussing music in Spanglish, and the next thing I knew, we were collaborating. Two days later, we were in a music studio in someone’s home, and a group of us spent six hours making an electronic beats track,” said Bass. “Trying to put together a song was interesting because there were certain words we needed help understanding. I needed to learn Spanish words, and he learned my language. It was beautiful, and what emerged from the process was ‘Fiesta en Cuba,’ a song we’re really proud of.”
Despite the excitement of making new friends and collaborating to produce a bilingual song, which is featured in the video above, the rap and electronic music devotee didn’t forget the reason for the trip.
“There was a strong sense of community and resilience. The Cuban people make do with what they have, and they find ways to make things work for them. Even the music studio had equipment that was made from old objects and materials – things I would have never thought of. It was inspiring and also humbling,” said Bass.
Humility and gratitude became themes central to the students’ experience of a country where workers receive an average estimated salary of about $20 per month. Shortly after their arrival, the students explored a rooftop garden and restaurant, and state and semi-private food markets in Havana. They were instructed to use participant observation and to address questions about the experience through the lens of a consumer.
“We see the world through our own cultural lens because of our experiences,” shared Niewolny. “The students were tasked to examine their assumptions. Why are the markets set up this way? Who has access? Who benefits? They had to explore the questions rather than falling back on cultural assumptions, preconceived notions, and biases.”
Bass and Ledwell took these exercises to heart.
“This was the most important aspect of this trip. You don’t realize how much you’ve been trained to think a certain way until you go somewhere totally different. I still have privilege. I have to constantly keep that in mind because I don’t always feel that. It was hard not to compare or to judge based on what you think is right,” said Bass.
The group visited Cuba during a time of transition. Within six weeks of their return to the U.S., Miguel Diaz-Canel was elected president. The vote marked the end of an era, making Diaz-Canel the first person outside of the Castro family to rule the country in 59 years, but Cuba remains a communist state. Niewolny felt it was important for the group to speak with scholars from the University from Havana, including Marxist economists.
“In the U.S., our dominant system of agriculture is market-driven, and this largely informs our relationships to food and its accessibility in our daily lives. In Cuba, there is a national mandate to address food security as a result of the Special Period,” said Niewolny. “This has fostered new kinds of opportunities for agro-ecology education, urban-rural collaboration, and farmer-to-farmer cooperatives, all of which are embedded in the needs of the community.”
During trips to several farms in the Havana province, the group was impressed by the Cubans’ resource-intensive, low-input agricultural production processes. Niewolny described sustainable, organic operations with considerable land dedicated to vermaculture, including rows of rich soil packed with earthworms that were fed ox dung. In turn, oxen powered most of the farm equipment. Agro-ecology relies on permaculture, the use of natural systems to ensure crops’ health, such as marigolds to attract pollinators, natural insecticides to deter pests, and organic products and manure to produce nutrient-rich compost. Just 11 years ago, Cuba produced more food than it did in 1988, using roughly one-quarter of the chemicals – an extraordinary agricultural victory. Even so, the country currently imports 60 to 80 percent of the food it consumes.
“We have a lot to learn from the Cuban experience,” said Niewolny. “Our system is not perfect. When we acknowledged that one in six people are food-insecure in the U.S., the Cubans could not believe it. The good-food revolution is asking us to revisit what and whom we value in terms of our communities and in our food system. The question of food justice needs to be center stage.”
Because Niewolny believes that our own resiliency is in question, learning from countries struggling with this question is not only informative, but necessary.
Matters of resilience and equity emerged in other areas, as well. The group’s interdisciplinary approach allowed the students to explore issues of race, gender, cultural identity, and cultural resiliency, all of which interface with food security and accessibility.
“We do not recognize that much of our history is rooted in Africa,” said Bass. “So much of what we learn is shared from one perspective. Yet, in Cuba, we saw women finding their ground in leadership roles in businesses. Women hold weight there. Colorism is also not as present there as it is here. I loved the interaction and the sense of community that we are still trying to find here in the U.S.”
Ledwell’s most poignant experience took place in a Cuban couple’s home in Old Havana.
“We toured a small house occupied by Gisela, Carlos, and their 13-year-old daughter, Carla. The family had a crude toilet, a rusted sink, and a shower with a large hole in the wall, exposing it to the alley outside. They kept a bucket in the shower to make sure no water was wasted,” said Ledwell. “The living area was an open quad. During storms, it rained in their home. And yet, as Gisela showed us her space, she was so happy and proud to have her own home. They had nothing by our standards, but still felt so blessed and so fortunate. That was my biggest aha moment. ‘Check your privilege,’ I thought. When I remember that, I’m still humbled.”
The students were also struck by how delighted Cubans were to meet Americans.
“They think we have this view of them as terrible communists, and it’s simply not true,” said Ledwell, who aspires to become a veterinarian. “The Cuban people we met wanted us to know they have a sense of humor and are warm, loving, and strong. Every person said ‘go home and tell them about me. Cuba is good.’ It was the saddest thing you could imagine.”
For Niewolny, the message from the people was, much like the country, a study in contrasts. “We were often told: ‘We appreciate your being here and learning from us. Although we don’t like your government, we like you.’”
Many Americans may feel the same way. However, if global experiences teach us anything, we are united in our humanity – and by our desire to understand and connect with one another. Not surprisingly, Bass and Ledwell consider their seven-day experience life-changing. Both hope to return to Cuba. “There is so much more to learn,” they said.
— Written by Amy Painter