Steamboat Springs A group of Colorado Mountain College students is preparing to travel to Cuba on a trip that was forbidden just a couple years ago.
President Barack Obama’s administration in January 2011 eased travel restrictions that made it possible for educational groups like CMC’s to visit the country. American tourism to the country since has rocketed, and an estimated 400,000 Americans visited Cuba last year. Cuba, though, remains the only country in the world where U.S. citizens are forbidden to travel to for leisure. Before the Obama policy change, about 50,000 Americans visited the country each year, often times illegally.
CMC Social and Behavioral Sciences Professor Bob Gumbrecht jumped at the opportunity to take a class legally.
“Cuba was always on my list,” Gumbrecht said.
During summer 2011, he went with a group of about 20 educators on a scouting trip.
“Things are changing so fast that I wanted to get as much of a glimpse of the revolution before it’s gone,” said Gumbrecht, who has a Cuban Bucanero beer bottle label hanging in his office.
The destination also has proven to be popular with students, and Gumbrecht had to turn down about 15 people because there would not be sufficient time to get their paperwork in order.
“The uniqueness and the novelty of the experience was something that was really appealing,” Gumbrecht said.
With 21 students signed up, Gumbrecht asked arts and humanities professor Cynthia Zyzsa to come along.
The $3,000 cost of the trip will cover most expenses including food, lodging and airfare.
Student Bailey Peth said she knew she wanted to go when Gumbrecht mentioned the Cuba trip during last year’s study abroad trip to Guatemala.
“I learned so much from that trip, it really changed my life, so there was no way I was going to miss another opportunity to having that sort of experience again,” Peth wrote in an email. “It is going to be kind of surreal experiencing something I was raised to believe was ‘bad.’ Cuba has always had an air of mystery around it, and I am looking forward to demystifying it.”
CMC is working with the Center for Global Education at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minn., to handle the paperwork and help plan the trip.
To prepare for the journey, students will be reading about the country and will meet on three Friday mornings. They leave March 8 and will go to Miami to catch a chartered flight.
Students will spend eight days in the capital of Havana and two days a couple hours to the east for some beach time in Varadero. Gumbrecht said the entire trip has to have an educational mission to comply with the conditions of the travel license. At the beach, for example, students will tour the resort hotels and learn about the impacts from tourism.
In Havana, students will tour the Museum of the Revolution in the former presidential palace. The museum provides a narrative of the Cuban revolution. Outside is an engine from an American U-2 spy plane that Cuba successfully shot down during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The history will help set the tone for the remainder of the trip.
“What does the revolution look like now, and where do people feel like it’s going in the future?” Gumbrecht asked.
While in Havana, the class will stay at a bunkhouse operated by the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center. Their host will be the center’s founder, the Rev. Raul Suarez, who advocates for religious freedoms in Cuba.
The group also will be meeting with politicians and exploring Cuba’s educational and renowned health care system.
“Health care and education were the two big cornerstones of the revolution,” Gumbrecht said.
With a trade embargo still in place, students will not be able to bring back traditional souvenirs. Only “informational materials” are allowed to come into the U.S. so students will be limited to that as well as the memories and knowledge gained during their visit of the socialist country with a recent history that Gumbrecht described as a unique experiment.
To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com