SIU builds strong relationship with Cuba, states Romero

Southern Illinois University is building an academic relationship with Cuba, according to Aldemaro Romero, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at SIUE. Romero began consideration of the project when he realized several SIUE faculty members with ties to Cuban educational institutions.

“When I came to SIUE, I found there were a number of faculty members who had been to Cuba in the past, who even had some ties with some Cuban colleagues,” said Romero. “Since I have been interested in the internationalization and diversification of the college, I thought of reviving those contacts to see if we could do something with Cuba.”

One of Romero’s first steps was contacting Paul Sarvela, vice president of academic affairs for SIU. Sarvela encouraged Romero to pursue an initiative that would allow SIU universities to interact in a multifaceted capacity with Cuban institutions.  Romero first met with representatives of Cuban institutions at the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) Meeting in Toronto, Ontario, last October.

Exchanges with different Cuban institutions already occur, according to Romero and Thomas Jordan, associate professor of historical studies. Jordan stated that he believes the initiative to be extremely worthwhile. Jordan recently took a group of SIUE students to Cuba on a travel-study course and offers a 400-level course on the history of Cuba that is very popular with SIUE students.

“Cuba sits in a very interesting nexus, being both Caribbean and Latin American. As such, it offers opportunities for our students interested in the politics and cultures of both regions,” said Jordan. “Similarly, the historic ties between Cuba and the United States (which really date back to the beginning of the 19th century) make it an interesting place to think about U.S. foreign policy, U.S.-Latin American relations, and the Cold War, among other topics.”

Romero has since organized a trip to Cuba. He traveled to Cuba this past January where he was involved in a week of intense and productive meetings. Romero states he saw a great deal of interest on the part of the members of the Universities of Havana and the National Museum of Fine Arts, as well as other institutions, to conduct academic business with SIU.

Romero returned from Cuba with draft for a memorandum of understanding and list of items of mutual interest that places SIU at the top of the list of U.S. universities doing academic business with Cuba.

Dean Romero (center) with Dr. Cristina Diaz Lopez (left), provost of the University of Havana, and Dr. Milagros Martinez (right), director of international relations of the University of Havana.

“It was a very positive coincidence that the week before I went to Cuba, the Obama administration lifted many of the restrictions that govern academic exchanges with Cuba,” said Romero. “The timing could not have been better.”

During the interview, Romero stated several goals for the initiative will include an equal exchange of both faculty and students, particularly at the graduate level between SIU and Cuba, as well as semester long programs in Havana and at SIU Carbondale and Edwardsville, and the University of Havana will offer short courses in the summer for SIU students.

Romero stated that SIU and the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana are considering art exchanges, as part of the initiative. He stated the tentative dates for the exhibits exchange will be during the 2012 academic year.

“They will be giving us a number of [art pieces] which [SIU] will be able to keep and exhibit those things in other museums in the U.S. In some cases, these exhibits will be accompanied by curators, who will talking about a particular type of art,” said Romero. “ There will be workshops about their art, including workshops for people with disabilities who may use art in art therapies. And, in some cases, professional musicians will come here.”

Joel Knapp, professor of music at SIUE, is one professor who hopes to expand the interaction between SIU and Cuba. Knapp stated that he hopes to establish a long-term relationship with the Institute of Superior Art which will allow a music exchange to occur.

“I traveled to Cuba last October, met with several influential people in the choral music scene.  I made arrangements to take the SIUE Concert Choir to Havana and Santiago next November,” said Knapp. “We will spend our days in Havana working with professional choirs and the [equivalent] high school and college music magnet programs [The Institute of Superior Art]. In Santiago, we will participate in an International Choral Festival.”

LASA will host another meeting in May of 2012, in San Francisco, CA. Romero, along with the Cuban representatives, are working to tentatively schedule an exchange at SIUE to happen during the week prior to the conference in San Francisco.

“For them, coming from Cuba, St. Louis is a natural stop-over. So they are proposing for a large group of them to come for an entire week where they can give presentations about their work at the University of Havana, about Cuba in general,” said Romero.  “And, on their own initiative, they want to give workshops to Illinois legislators and business people on how to do business in Cuba.”

Romero stated this will be important because, in spite of the embargo on Cuba, the U.S. is the fourth largest commercial partner and the number one supplier of food to Cuba.

During this week, Romero said, the Cuban representatives will stay with and work with SIU faculty, in order to establish greater rapport. This will also allow the members to work on final drafts of presentations.

“In the meeting of LASA in San Francisco, we will be presenting papers together, Cuban scholars and SIU scholars,” said Romero.

A portion of the May 2012 visit will be designated for the Cuban representatives to present to SIU officials about the plans and benefits of the exchange.

Romero stated he has given a report to the University along with the draft of the memorandum of understanding. Romero stated that once all of this is approved, Glenn Poshard, president of Southern Illinois University, may travel to Havana, Cuba to sign the paperwork to make the initiative official.

Romero stated SIU is seeking and has identified a number of potential private financial sources to fund the initiative.

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