Maine art scholars’ trip to Cuba an education on embargo

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The group from Augusta saw the U.S. embargo’s effects in Cuba, and experienced them back at the U.S. border.

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — University of Maine at Augusta students and faculty members traveling recently in Cuba saw signs of the U.S. embargo everywhere they looked.

University of Maine at Augusta students pose in Havana’s Revolution Square.

Contributed photo

The streets were filled with 1950s cars still running on little more than the ingenuity of Cuba’s do-it-yourself mechanics.

Children and professional artists alike were grateful for art supplies the UMA group brought for them because they have trouble obtaining them on the island.

The general poverty, scarcity of consumer goods and abundance of deteriorating buildings all have some connection to the isolation of an island cut off from its nearest neighbor and the world’s largest economy.

Despite the evidence of hardship, the visitors from UMA were charmed by Cuba’s physical beauty, the friendliness of its people and the rich variety of its art, history and culture. Their most direct experience of the fraught relations between the United States and Cuba didn’t happen until they were almost back on American soil.

“The embargo to me was far more evident when we did that eight-hour border crossing,” said Steve Heddricg, a student from Cushing.

Most of the group had to wait eight hours at the border crossing in Canaan, Vt. – they had flown through Montreal, the closest airport with flights to Havana – while U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers inspected items they had brought back from Cuba and seized several of them. The travelers argue that the items, including jewelry and embroidery, should have been allowed through because they’re art, but the officers apparently disagreed.

“They were making determinations what was art and what was not,” said Robert Rainey, assistant professor of photography at UMA. “And I would say to them, just jokingly, ‘You have an art professor here.’ ”

TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS EASED

Art is a major focus of the course to which the trip was linked, “Cuba: Understanding Between the Arts.” It’s one of the interdisciplinary integrated courses that UMA has offered in recent years, and its students will earn nine credits – three each for Cuban art and architecture, contemporary Latin American literature and introduction to digital art.

The idea emerged from a previous integrated course on the theme of revolution in Latin America, which included a trip to Nicaragua. It touched on Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution, so a course about Cuba seemed like a natural next step, Rainey said.

Central to the Cuba course was a trip to the island during spring break, March 27 to April 6. Students had to apply to be admitted to the course and paid a $2,400 fee to cover the cost of the trip.

Although the Obama administration has loosened restrictions on travel to Cuba, most Americans still cannot go without obtaining a license from the U.S. Treasury Department for a specific purpose or traveling with an organization that has a license. Certain activities, however, are covered under a general license, including educational travel for a credit-bearing academic course.

All that the 16 students, four faculty members and one retired faculty member needed to do was carry a letter signed by Dean of Arts and Sciences Greg Fahy, on UMA letterhead, describing the trip and activities planned.

A trip like UMA’s probably would not have been possible five years ago, said Emily Chow, senior associate for the Cuba program of the Latin America Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that opposes the embargo and restrictions on travel.

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