License allows U students and staff to travel to Cuba

by Shruti Mathur

Mark Arneson has a stamp in his passport most people don’t: Cuba’s.

Arneson legally visited Cuba with a group of students this summer using a special travel license the Treasury Department granted to the University.

Under the U.S. embargo, American citizens’ travel to Cuba is restricted.

The license is a two-year authorization to faculty and students who qualify, said Kathleen Sellew, the Office of International Programs faculty services director.

“The license benefits us because we as an institution can approve of programs that we feel are necessary and feel bolster our programs,” Sellew said.

Arneson’s group went this summer through the Student Project for Amity Among Nations, where each of the students chose individual research projects.

The projects include reserach topics such as the Chinese community in Cuba, holistic medicine and Cubans’ perceptions of American women.

The project also went in the summer of 2001, before the license was issued.

Arneson said his first impression of Cuba was “mouth-dropping amazement. It was like stepping back in time.

“You work through the awe and amazement and it made it a very real place of real people.”

Alyssa Wetzel, a global studies and Spanish senior who went on the project’s first trip, said she had the same connected feeling.

“It was a really euphoric experience for me,” Wetzel said. “It’s a beautiful country with a real sense of community.”

Wetzel, who loves to cook, focused on food as an expression of the Cuban experience.

She said she admired Cubans’ ingenuity in using the resources they had, including converting semitrailers into buses and creating satellites out of scrap metal.

Wetzel said her experience also led to frustration with U.S. policy concerning Cuba.

“Cuba’s been so demonized,” Wetzel said, adding that the lack of laissez-faire attitude in the United States affected her.

Faculty members have utilized the license for research in their fields.

Dr. Daniel Rose, extramural programs director at the University’s School of Dentistry, has visited Cuba twice with the University’s license and is exploring the possibility of bringing dental students with him on his next trip.

Rose has an invitation from the Cuban government to have an exchange – which he thinks would only be one-way – and he said he hopes to bring fourth-year dental students with him to work with Cuban dentists and learn about Cuba.

“It provides an opportunity for students to see another health care system and see a cultural exchange on a professional and human level,” Rose said.

During his past visits, Rose met with Dr. Carlos Dotres Martinez, the Cuban minister of public health, to discuss the exchange.

“They are very gracious and like to show their system,” Rose said. “Whether you agree with them or not, they’re proud of it.”

The cultural exchanges between the University and Cuba haven’t always been one-way.

Ron Caple, a professor at the University’s Duluth campus, has twice hosted Uvaldo Orea Igarza, a fellow chemistry professor from Cuba.

He said they are looking at the chemistry of the bark of a ecalyptus species that grows in Pinar del Rio.

Caple said getting Igarza here was “almost impossible.” He used the help of Congressman James Oberstar, D-Minn., to get Igarza’s visa approved.

Caple has visited Cuba five times, and he said he wants to develop an exchange program that makes two-way exchanges easier.

“The embargo has not worked,” Caple said. “It sounded like a good idea initially, but it never worked.”

He said Gov. Jesse Ventura’s trip last week to Cuba to open up business between the two countries was a good idea.

“The Canadians are doing it, we should too,” he said.

“They are very well-trained, well-educated, warm people,” Caple said. “They’re too warm to be grouchy communists.”

Wetzel said her experience in Cuba has benefited her internationally focused major.

“I feel like I’m in a historical moment to go (to Cuba) at this time,” she said. “Hopefully the embargo will end tomorrow and I can go to Cuba whenever I want.”

Shruti Mathur welcomes comments at [email protected]