Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Seeds of Change: From New Orleans to Habana

This post marks the sixth entry for the current Roots of Hope blog theme: Seeds of Change. To read previous entries, see What comes next: study abroad and youth-led change in Cuba, How Cell Phones Can Shake a Nation, and Begin from the Beginning: the need for open dialogue.

By Annie Gibson

A few days ago I arrived in la Habana with a group of students from Tulane University in New Orleans. They are about to embark on an amazing adventure, studying for a semester at la Universidad de la Habana in the Departments of Artes y Letras and Geografía y Filosofia. It is an experience that few North American students are granted due to the obvious hurdles caused by the strained relations between Cuba and the United States since 1959.

Tulane University has engaged in a semester long study abroad program in Havana, Cuba in partnership with the University of Havana since 2009. This program evolved out of several years of sustained effort by Tulane’s Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute (a part of Tulane’s Stone Center for Latin American Studies) to develop relations with Cuban counterpart organizations for the purposes of academic collaboration and exchange, curricular development, cultural exchange and international development and dialogue. The Cuban & Caribbean Studies Institute, a part of Tulane’s Stone Center for Latin American Studies, was officially established in 1997, and has been responsible for the organization of a variety of lectures, performances, courses, symposia, etc. aimed at promoting a true academic and cultural exchange between Cuba and the United States. (

This August, we began our Cuba semester study abroad in Miami, where we made visits to key cultural and political leaders within the Cuban-American communitybecause in order to fully understand Cuba, one cannot leave out its diasporas. And for most in the United States, the term “Cuban-American” primarily evokes images of Miami. As the most populous resettlement of Cuban expatriates in the US, Miami has been the undisputed home of Cuban-American culture and commerce for half a century. For students coming to Cuba from Tulane, however, I am quick to mention that that not only is Miami an important city to study in connection to Cuban-American relations, but their own city of New Orleans has historical ties that date back to the 1800s.

From 1762 until 1800, New Orleans was a Spanish colony administered by the Captains General of Cuba stationed in Havana. That situation ensured close ties between New Orleans, located at the helm of North America’s most expansive riverine network, and Havana, the well-protected port at the Gulf Stream’s entrance to the Atlantic. By the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Havana and New Orleans were fundamental hubs along an “American Mediterranean” that also included Hispaniola and New Spain. Consequently, the ports at New Orleans and Havana enjoyed centuries of communication, and in the mid-20th century, Cuba was New Orleans’ most voluminous and lucrative trading partner. These ties were critical in the economic, political, and cultural development of each.

The Cuban embargo of 1963 transformed US-Cuban policy and trade into a vehement anti-Castroism. Bolstered by millions in CIA funds and a steady flow of Cuban migrants, while Miami instantly became the epicenter of the Cuban-American community, fifty years later, New Orleans’ port economy has stagnated, never fully recovering from the loss of its vital commercial ally.

This semester of study in Havana, is, thus, not only an opportunity for Tulane students to learn about Cuba, but also to see the historic and cultural ties between New Orleans and Havana that make New Orleans the city that it is today. These adventurous Tulane students will be ambassadors of culture, opening the gates of communication to better understanding the transnational ties between Cuba and New Orleans. We will keep you posted on their findings!

Annie Gibson received her PhD in 2010 from the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at Tulane University. Her areas of specialization include Cuban and Brazilian performance cultures and Brazilian immigration to the United States. Her travels and research in both Cuba and Brazil have been supported by two FLAS Fellowships, the Tinker Foundation, and the Research Group for the Study of the Global South. At Tulane, Dr. Gibson teaches a diverse range of courses in Spanish and Portuguese language and literature, Latin American migrant cultures and literature, and performance cultures of Latin America. She holds a contract in both the Departments of Latin American Studies and of Spanish and Portuguese. Dr. Gibson’s experience with study abroad began when she was an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, participating in study abroad semesters in Argentina and Brazil. In 2004, she directed a spring break trip to Costa Rica for Princeton Day School middle and high school students, in 2010 she was the Resident Director for Tulane’s summer in Costa Rica program and in 2011 she led a summer program for the Rassias Foundation in Pontevedra, Spain. She is currently the resident director of Cuba’s semester study abroad program in Havana, Cuba.

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