Some things are universal: The first day of class is awkward, particularly at a new school, and it pays to break the ice. As Johannes Hallermeier ’16 discovered, this is no less true in Cuba than it is anywhere else.

Hallermeier was sitting with a handful of Princeton students and a dozen Cubans in a class on the history of Latin American thought at the University of Havana last February, as part of a revised and expanded study-abroad program. While they waited for the professor, the students kept to themselves — shuffling papers, playing with pens, staring silently at their wooden desks. As a rule, Hallermeier would learn, Cubans are friendly and outgoing people, but today, probably because of first-day nervousness, everyone avoided eye contact. It did not bode well for an engaging semester.

“I felt that we could easily have had no common ground going forward,” he recalls. “As a foreigner, I thought I had to take the first step.”

In a Havana café are, sitting, from left: Yoselin Gramajo ’16, Olivia Adechi ’16, Adjoa Mante ’17, and Emma Wingreen ’17; standing, from left: Sophia Aguilar ’16, Fabian Cabrera (coordinator with the University of Havana), Ben Hummel ’16, Sof
In a Havana café are, sitting, from left: Yoselin Gramajo ’16, Olivia Adechi ’16, Adjoa Mante ’17, and Emma Wingreen ’17; standing, from left: Sophia Aguilar ’16, Fabian Cabrera (coordinator with the University of Havana), Ben Hummel ’16, Sofia Hiltner ’17, Johannes Hallermeier ’16, Professor Rubén Gallo, Miguel Caballero GS, and Dennisse Calle ’16.
Courtesy Olivia Adechi ’16

The first step, thought Hallermeier, who is German, was to introduce himself to the women. “That seemed like the safe move,” he says, laughing. It broke the silence, and within a few minutes everyone was saying hello. For the rest of the semester, the Cubans and the Americans would greet each other each morning — not exactly as friends, perhaps, but no longer as strangers.

Hallermeier did make a close friend during the semester in Havana: a Cuban philosophy student named Carlos. Before or after class, at parties, or hanging out in the evenings, they talked about philosophy, their lives, and everything else young people discuss. Carlos told him, for example, that although he was 21 years old, he never had been on the Internet.

Carlos introduced Hallermeier to his girlfriend, Jessica, and together they talked about what life in Cuba might be like if relations with the United States normalized. Hallermeier considers Carlos and Jessica to be “pretty typical of the younger generation. They haven’t seen the benefits of socialism, and they find it hard to achieve what they want.” Foreign travel is tightly restricted, jobs in one’s chosen field are hard to come by, and most young Cubans are fed up with rampant corruption in public life. Yet they are also critical, to the extent they understand it, of the go-go, workaholic culture of Europe and the United States. Somehow, Hallermeier believes, young Cubans hope to find a path between the two extremes.

This is an exciting time to be in Cuba — particularly if one takes the time to get out and mingle, as Hallermeier and eight other Princeton undergraduates did. They spent the spring semester studying in Havana in a program run by the Program in Latin American Studies and planned long before the diplomatic thaw was announced last December. It was the students’ good fortune to experience perhaps the last of the old, isolated, revolutionary Cuba. They came home with an unusual perspective on what the country is like and where it is headed, but the time abroad changed some of their views of the United States, as well. They could see the still-yawning divide from both sides.

Though Havana is a bustling city, there is an odd Sleeping Beauty quality to it as well, as if everyone on the island who does any repair work had fallen asleep in 1959 and the country had slowly fallen apart. Havana traffic is a mashup of Truman-era Chevrolets and Brezhnev-era Ladas — the latter being leftovers from the days when Cuba was a Soviet client state — with a smattering of new, Chinese-made Geelys. One modern invention that does not seem to have reached Cuba is the catalytic converter; a scrim of blue exhaust smoke hangs over the intersections whenever a traffic light turns green.

After half a century under Communism and the U.S. trade embargo, Cuba is a poor country, where the mean salary, according to the Havana Times, is just $22 a month. Houses that once were a cheerful shade of pink or blue now badly need a fresh coat of paint; some stand next to buildings that are just abandoned shells. On many side streets, it can be difficult to find more than a few dozen yards of unbroken pavement.

The driving force behind Princeton’s new program in Cuba is Rubén Gallo, the Walter S. Carpenter Jr. Professor in Language, Literature, and Civilization of Spain and director of the Program in Latin American Studies. Slim, soft-spoken, and unfailingly polite, Gallo has written on topics ranging from Proust in Latin America to Freud in Mexico. For several years, the Woodrow Wilson School had offered an opportunity to study in Havana as part of a junior policy task force, but enrollment had been declining and students reported feeling cut off from Princeton. Gallo offered to absorb the program into the Program in Latin American Studies, revise it, and expand it.

For the launch, he went to Havana himself. Students would take classes at the University of Havana, as they had done in previous years, but also would take two classes that Gallo would teach. He rented a three-room apartment — sparsely furnished with ’50s furniture and a TV set provided by the landlady — to serve as his office and classroom. A veranda looked out across Vedado, the newer section of Havana, toward the big tourist hotels downtown and the sea beyond.

Gallo began accepting applications for the program last fall. Fluency in Spanish was a prerequisite, but beyond that he recruited a diverse group of students: six juniors and three sophomores; two men and seven women; a mix of races, academic majors, ethnicities, and nationalities. They majored in sociology, philosophy, politics, history, and Spanish and Portuguese.

The Malecón, Havana’s seawall, is a favorite meeting place.
The Malecón, Havana’s seawall, is a favorite meeting place.
Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

The group traveled to Havana in late January and returned in mid-May, living with other American students in a two-story, state-owned guesthouse a few blocks from Gallo’s office. Like many buildings in Vedado, the colonial-style guesthouse probably had belonged to a wealthy family before the revolution; the students describe it as “luxurious,” with tile floors and large wooden rocking chairs on the porch. They roomed in pairs in the high-ceilinged bedrooms, each of which had its own bathroom, and ate their meals family-style in the dining room. Those meals — usually soup, rice, beans, seasonal vegetables, and perhaps some ground meat or shellfish — were filling and better than those most Cubans enjoy. Many food items on the island are rationed, and milk is reserved for pregnant women and young children.

On a typical day, the Princeton students attended morning classes at the University of Havana a few miles from their residence and met with Gallo in the afternoon. Offerings at the university, which were taken on a pass/fail basis, included a choice from courses in Afro-Caribbean studies, Cuban art and music, and Latin American history — with a heavy emphasis on struggles against European and American colonialism.

Miguel Caballero GS finds a workbook on Mandarin in a bookshop owned by a political activist.
Miguel Caballero GS finds a workbook on Mandarin in a bookshop owned by a political activist.
Olivia Adechi ’16

To the students, the University of Havana looked at first like many other universities, its main building a Greek temple with a statue of Alma Mater presiding at the head of an impressive staircase running down to the street. But like much of the rest of the city, the interior was threadbare. Classrooms resembled a run-down McCosh Hall, the ancient wooden desks anchored in rows. Many of the windows would not close when it rained, and the thermostat often ran sleep-inducingly high. Outside, one or two of the city’s numerous stray dogs usually could be found dozing in the shade of the Corinthian pillars.

A class on the theory and history of Marxist/Leninist philosophy, which might have revealed something about how Cubans regard their own revolution, did not deliver, the Princeton students say. There was a lot of theory, including readings of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and Rosa Luxemburg — but the history culminated with the Bolshevik revolution, with no attempt to explore how Marxist/Leninist ideology has worked in practice. Similarly, several of the Princeton students say a course on the history of the Cuban revolution emphasized readings from Fidel Castro’s speeches and analyses of how the revolutionaries seized and consolidated power, but it avoided discussions of any of their subsequent failings.

“There wasn’t a free debate,” says Ben Hummel ’16. “It really did feel that a lot of the students were just regurgitating material the professor had taught us.”

Discussions were somewhat freer in a required course the Princeton group took — without Cuban classmates — at the University of Havana’s Center for Demographic Studies. Each week, a Cuban faculty member would discuss a different topic in Cuban society, ranging from gender and sexuality to infant-mortality rates. Some of the instructors were “old-line revolutionaries” dogmatic about life under Communism, says Miguel Caballero, a fourth-year Ph.D. student who served as Gallo’s assistant during the semester. Not all of them, however: Economist Omar Everleny Perez Villanueva assessed areas in which the Cuban experiment had come up short, particularly in providing adequate amounts of food and consumer goods.

Princeton students also took two courses for credit with Gallo during the semester, both of which helped them understand Cuba today. The first, “Cuban Literature, History, and Politics Since the Revolution,” examined how things have changed — and not changed — during the last 56 years. Students read nearly a dozen books, in Spanish and English, all of which they purchased before they left the United States because they are unobtainable in Cuba. The reading list included Jorge Edwards *59’s 1971 book Persona Non Grata, a highly critical assessment of the repression and paranoia bred by the Castro revolution.

Each week, Gallo and Caballero also would invite writers, artists, filmmakers, and other Cuban intellectuals to meet with the students and talk about their work. Yumei Besú, the director of the Havana short-film festival, screened films that were artistically complex and non-ideological, freely addressing topics such as sex and gender relationships. It is a curious aspect of modern Cuban society that, while the written word is heavily policed, filmmakers have enjoyed greater artistic freedom, which Gallo believes may have something to do with the fact that Fidel Castro is reported to be a film buff and one of his closest associates was the longtime head of the Cuban film institute.

Nevertheless, censorship exists — and artists fight back. One Cuban filmmaker told the students about a ruse she employs: In each film, she inserts a gratuitous scene criticizing the secret police. The police demand that she remove it, and she complains loudly before she relents, finally agreeing to delete a scene she never had intended to use in the first place. The censors, appeased, allow the rest of the film to pass unscathed. The story, Gallo says, suggests that even the Cuban state police do not really have their heart in the work anymore.

For a more in-depth look at contemporary Cuba, Gallo taught a seminar, “Havana: Urban Culture in Latin America,” which he calls a study in urban anthropology. Each student was required to identify a particular place and study its history, architecture, and role in the city’s life. The Princeton students chose a wide variety of sites, including churches, a sports facility, a private farm market — even Havana’s only kosher butcher shop.

Sophia Aguilar ’16 and Yoselin Gramajo ’16 selected city parks with very different subcultures, visiting at all hours and studying each with an anthropologist’s eye. Aguilar studied Parque Central, a leafy square in the heart of Old Havana that is popular with tourists and residents alike, and focused her attention on a 28-year-old cross-dresser and prostitute who called himself Graciela. The two met on a park bench one afternoon; Aguilar broke the ice by complimenting the young man on his purple nail polish. Eventually Graciela told his story and inquired eagerly about how cross-dressers are viewed in the United States. Poverty, Aguilar found, has driven many young people into prostitution and turned Cuba into something of a destination for “sexual tourists” from Latin America, a fact Cubans acknowledge with embarrassment.

Gramajo chose a park across the city known as Parque G. By day, its signal feature is a series of busts and statues of Latin-American political heroes, but at night it becomes a spot for young nonconformists to drink, listen to music, skateboard, and thumb their noses at parental — and societal — norms. She described several subcultures that might be familiar to Americans, each defined by their sartorial and musical tastes: rock and rollers with long hair, black clothes, and boots; hip-hop fans known as reparteros who prefer a uniform of Converse sneakers, shiny belts, flat-brim baseball caps, and shirts with English expressions; and wuapangeros (“metal heads” might be a good translation) flaunting tattoos, ear gauges, and satanic jewelry. As a 22-year-old rickshaw driver told Gramajo, the park “is a world for people that society does not see as being a part of it. It’s like a separate world where you can be free.”

In her final paper for Gallo, Gramajo suggested that these groups may presage a generational shift with important implications. “Many of the youth in Cuba,” she wrote, “especially in Parque G, may have more to say to a young man in Los Angeles than to an adult in Cuba.” And unlike their parents, she noted, the youth of Parque G — at least those with family in the United States — slowly are becoming tied to technology: They’re as likely to be engrossed in a movie on someone’s laptop as engaging in conversation. If normalization connects Cuba to the outer world, she speculates, it may create an online culture that renders a public space like Parque G obsolete.

The main building of the University of Havana
The main building of the University of Havana
De Agostini/W. Buss/Getty Images

As with any good study-abroad program, some of the most salient lessons were learned outside of the undergraduates’ coursework. Although the students found many Cubans to be circumspect in what they would say at the university or in crowded public spaces where they might be overheard, they were more forthcoming in private.

Because Cubans were prohibited from visiting the Americans at their guesthouse, the groups interacted over cheap lunches together in hole-in-the-wall private restaurants, at concerts or nightclubs, or at the Cubans’ homes and apartments. Frequently, they met along the Malecón, the long, busy esplanade that runs along Havana’s seawall. “We mostly met there because there was no requirement to spend any money, and that’s a big deal to Cubans,” says Emma Wingreen ’17. There they would pass around beer, rum, or cigarettes, listen to music, or just sit and talk in the gathering darkness.

While members of the older generation remain suspicious of Americans, their children were more openly critical of their own society. To their surprise, the Princetonians found their new friends to be up to date on American culture. Cubans have adapted to their lack of Internet access by developing something called Paquete Semenal (the Weekly Packet), a sort of static World Wide Web that sometimes is sold but often just passed hand-to-hand on USB drives. Anything that is overtly political or pornographic is suppressed, but the authorities seem to wink at everything else, although who exactly creates paquete or how the content is obtained remains a mystery.

Wherever paquete comes from, the students quickly learned to turn to it for the latest American movies and TV shows, music videos, magazines, computer games, restaurant reviews, concert advertisements, and for-sale listings. They described it as a “Cuban Craigslist.”

“In the U.S., people say, ‘Did you see this on Facebook?’” Wingreen notes. “In Cuba, it was, ‘Did you see it on paquete?’”

Next year, another group of Princeton students will go to Cuba. A different faculty member, Adrián Lopez-Denis, who was born there, is teaching a fall-semester course on the country’s history, politics, and culture, and then will lead the students to Havana in January. Gallo says he plans to visit as well.

With the economic embargo still in force, it was too early last spring for the Princeton students to see tangible evidence of the changes that fully normalized relations might bring to Cuba. They view the thaw with hope as well as a considerable amount of trepidation. “It is going to be great for people to have access to information from the world and to participate in that,” says Hallermeier, thinking of his friend, Carlos, who never had used the Internet. But others express concern that while a market economy might reduce food scarcity, it also will increase social, political, and economic inequality.

“I’m worried about who is going to benefit from the opening up,” says Olivia Adechi ’16. “Prices will rise, but will wages rise, too?” She raises the specter of Havana becoming something like Atlantic City, with a few luxurious tourist resorts standing amid a sea of local poverty — conditions that set the stage for the Castro revolution in the first place.

Life under a Communist regime did not lead the students to reject it out of hand or to praise American capitalism unsparingly. Some came to appreciate the gains Cuba has made in health care and education since the revolution. Returning to the United States after four months away, Wingreen found American wealth and abundance almost overwhelming. “I was coming from a country with no Internet, and at Newark airport, everyone has an iPad,” she says. She began to notice other luxuries that many Americans take for granted, like fruit on supermarket shelves even when it’s out of season. “Maybe it’s not Cuba that needs to change, but the U.S.,” she says. “We have all these things that are over-the-top ridiculous that we could do without.”

Gramajo was struck by the different way Cubans, who are not yet chained to their phones, view time. “There is such an emphasis on strengthening relationships,” she says. “Four-hour conversations are OK. In the U.S., it’s like time is money.”

For Aguilar, the semester in Cuba sparked a lot of soul-searching. “It really led me to re-evaluate what I value,” she explains. “Those [Cuban] advances in health care and education came at a price. They came at the price of freedom of speech, of human-rights violations, and one has to ask if it was worth it. The answer is, I don’t know. That’s something that I am still thinking about.” 

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.