SIUE Cuba-Caribbean initiative gains momentum

An initiative originating from the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) is officially underway at the SIUE due to the foresight of Dean Aldemaro Romero.

“The idea came to my mind when I became the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and found out that there had been many of the faculty of Edwardsville, who have been to Cuba and have established some relations with Cuba,” said Romero.

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. photo courtesy of Romero

Romero stated that he felt confident that the political environment would change following the election of Barack Obama and that the travel restrictions would change to allow a more free exchange of students and faculty.

“Since the political environment was changing with the election of Barack Obama–a number of restrictions with Cuba were being loosened up–I said this is a good time to initiate something with Cuba,” said Romero. “And, with my own knowledge of the Caribbean in general, my field work in many Caribbean countries, and my fluency with Spanish, I said let’s just start something.

In an initial meeting in January 2011, a rough draft of the memorandum was created.

“In January of this year, I visited Havana, spent a week, met with many faculty of the University of Havana, as well as people from the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana and the Havana Botanical Gardens,” said Romero. “We came up with a number of ideas to develop. We started to discuss a draft for a memorandum of understanding between both institutions, and we discussed developing extensive correspondence with Cuban intellectuals and artists.”

Just recently, The Illinois Board of Higher Education approved the creation and funding of the Cuban and Caribbean Center.

“The Illinois Board of Higher Education approved the creation of the Cuban Caribbean Center which means that the Center officially exists,” said Romero. “I am going to Havana in February with the chancellors of the two campuses [SIUE and SIUC] and other faculty in order to sign the agreement–a memorandum of understanding–between SIUE and the University of Havana.”

Romero originally presented the idea for the Center to CAS faculty when he first came to SIUE.

“It got started when Romero came to campus. In his opening speech to the CAS faculty, he expressed the desire to get into Cuba and to start endearing ourselves and building relationships, anticipating that Obama would lift the embargo any day,” said Joel Knapp, professor in the music department.

Knapp, one of the first SIUE professors to benefit from the initiative, recently returned from Cuba, where he, Carolyn Minear, instructor in the music department, and 18 SIUE students performed at various venues around Santiago de Cuba.

SIUE's choir in Santiago, Cuba in front of the Sala Dolorosa. photo courtesy of Knapp.

Another phase of the initiative will happen in May 2012 with the arrival of a delegation from the University of Havana.

“We are also preparing for a visit of a faculty delegation of the University of Havana to come to Edwardsville in May of 2012, in order to start the face-to-face conversations with people in the different disciplines to see what kind of collaborations can take place,” said Romero. “That’s the idea for the meeting here in May is for people in different disciplines from Cuba coming here to talk to their counterparts and get specific proposals from each department to say we would like to send someone, or we would like to receive someone, or both, if that is what they want to do.

Romero stated that ideally there would be a one-to-one exchange of faculty and students between SIUE and the University of Havana. He also said the Center initiative will open doors for US and Cuban faculty and students while creating an understanding of the differing cultures.

“We will be able to say that we are doing academic diplomacy through cultural, scientific, and artistic exchanges. For both faculty and students, we are offering opportunities that most other universities cannot offer because we’ll be able to send students down there,” said Romero. “We are not the only university doing something with Cuba, but the scope of what we want to do with Cuba is so large and so diverse that the Cuban officials asked us to sign this agreement during the International Congress of Universities that’s taking place in Havana because they want to herald this agreement as the model of future agreements between US institutions and Cuban institutions.”

Romero stated that there are preliminary talks about a summer course for SIUE students in Havana.

“We are working right now is for the University of Havana to prepare a summer course for our students who will go to Cuba and learn about Cuban history, Cuban economics, Cuban politics, Cuban art. So, it will be a study abroad opportunity for them during the summer, a short course, but because during the summer you can do it very intense,” said Romero.

This is possible because of the difference in the Bush and Obama administration’s view on the legislation and rules surrounding travel and education opportunities between the US and Cuba.

“What has changed are the rules and the interpretation of those rules. For example, in the past, during the Bush administration, US students could only go to Cuba if they were going to spend at least a full semester there. Now, it allows for shorter courses like one in the summer for our students to go there. There were also more restrictions in terms of travel in general for Cubans to come here,” said Romero.

According to Romero, while the rules have changed, travel to Cuba will not be as easy a traveling to other countries.

“Things are much more relaxed. We still need to work through both the State Department and the Treasury Department in order to get all the licenses. It’s not like going to any other country,” said Romero. “Hopefully, things will get even better in the future.”

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