U students meet to discuss summer exchange to Cuba

by Jessica Weaver

University students who participated in the International Youth Exchange in Cuba this summer talked about their experiences Friday night at an event sponsored by the Minnesota Cuba Committee.

About 20 University students attended the eight-day exchange to Cuba. The group of about 300 Americans who toured the University of Havana and cultural sites in Cuba. They attended lectures and also went to the 50-year celebration of the Cuban revolution.

The event comes slightly more than a week after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to ease restrictions on travel to Cuba.

“It was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life – being young and alone on such a controversial island,” said Vanda Smrkovski, a first-year Spanish and geography student. “Many of the people were the brightest, most cultured, globally aware people I’ve ever met.”

Still, Smrkovski said her host family let her know there are imperfections in Cuban society such as hunger and poverty.

“It blew my mind,” said Jonathan Poulson, a 2003 political science graduate. “It’s something completely different, where a completely different set of ideas reign.”

The participants cited the differences in Cuban society. Zach Larmore, a senior in political science and philosophy said he tried to explain homelessness to a young Cuban boy he met. The boy had no concept of it, Larmore said.

Some participants said they returned from the trip feeling conflicted.

“I had actually romanticized (Cuba) a lot,” said Elizabeth Oliver, a 2003 graduate in English and history. “(There is a) conflict between socialism and capitalism. Is Castro a dictator or not? You have two sides and nothing takes both into account.”

During the question-and answer-session at the end of the event, many audience members said they were glad the group had visited Cuba.

Exploring different forms of government can be a valuable experience for students, said Megan Feeney, an American studies graduate student.

“I think tons of students should go,” Feeney said. “I think with the war more students are standing up and saying ‘What is the country about?’ “