The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Four Months in Havana: Make That Two

The author in front of the University of Havana

This past week my program in Cuba was canceled, and in less than 5 days I was on a plane back to the States with a mask my housemate had given me. While it’s disorientating being back so abruptly, the confusion of my switch in location and plans has been overshadowed in every way by the bombardment of news about our pandemic. Now I’m focusing on continuing the education I started, playing my small role in this chaos, and reflecting on what I gained from my two months in Cuba. I spent the last week of my time in Havana trying to say goodbye to my friends and enjoying the parts of the city I had grown to love. One of the silver linings of this situation is this week I had to appreciate just how much I’ve enjoyed this city and the wonderful connections that I made there. I got slightly sick from something I ate, and my gift shopping was therefore carried out from a slightly delirious state of mind, but it passed quickly and I had some really nice moments with friends saying goodbye and hanging out along the Malecón.

Photo taken by the author in Old Havana

For a lot of study abroad students, the decision to return or not had two main factors: the stance of your home university and that of your program. For example, while UMass was not calling me back yet, once my program decided to cancel the semester, I could not stay for a number of reasons, including housing, visa, funding, and border concerns. For other students, before IFSA decided to recall its students, their universities were telling them they had to return with no exceptions. This was getting complicated because some students were signing waivers accepting the consequences of refusing their universities advice, and others were facing the possibility of losing a semesters’ worth of work if they did the same. All of whom have since returned after being faced with the pressure of closing borders.

For now it looks like I will get half credit for my classes at the University of Havana as long as I turn in the final papers for our classes. IFSA Butler has offered online classes through their Argentina program to make up the rest of the credits, but I'm hoping to stay in touch with my professors from Cuba. As a result of the change in classes, which is the only option for us given the internet challenges in Cuba, the education I had started feels premature. However, my professors in Cuba gave me enough reading to continue work on my own for a long time, partially because reading in Spanish takes me an incredible amount of time and energy, and I can continue to stay in touch with them through email. 

In terms of the situation with the virus in Cuba when I left, there were newspaper articles like the one below about COVID-19 and advertisements on TV about precautionary measures to take, and all my peers at the university had a meeting debriefing the situation the day before I left. Things still felt generally calm and masks were just starting to pop up around Havana. My friends recently told me that classes in Cuba were suspended until the end of April, and they’re trying to find a way to move forward given the internet challenges.  

Copy of Cuban newspaper "Gramna" from March 18th 2020 that the Author bought in Cuba

To get internet in Cuba, you have one of two options: public WiFi cards or data. A WiFi card costs one CUC (one dollar) per hour and you can only use it in a WiFi hotspot, which is largely only available in WiFi (public) parks or in hotels. You can buy data through your phone and pay by GB. This becomes very expensive for a lot of people. Therefore, as the university weighs options for submitting homework and assignments online, it has to consider that a lot of students can’t afford data and won’t receive any messages at home if they are confined to their houses. This is going to make important assignments and events—like theses and graduation—very difficult. I can only imagine how lack of connection complicates mental health challenges and difficult home situations for Cubans trapped at home without internet access.

Some articles that discuss Cuba's position in the COVID-19 crisis:

Spanish Words:

#YoMeQuedoEnCasa (yo me quedo en casa):

The equivalent of saying, “I’m staying in the house” or "I'm staying inside," which I heard a lot of artists and famous people are using on Twitter to encourage people to stay inside. One of my professors signed an email with this line. 

Cuídate:

This means take care of yourself or just take care (I'm not sure which is more accurate).