12 students in Cold War class visit Cuba for Spring Break

Scott Murphy, News Editor

During Spring Break, twelve of the forty students currently enrolled in history Professors Phil Pajakowski and Matthew Masur’s special topics Cold War class visited Cuba from March 1-7.

The class’ visit occurred roughly three months after the December 17, 2014 announcement by President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro that both countries would begin working towards addressing grievances from the Cold War and normalizing diplomatic relations between the two nations.

This has been deemed the “Cuban Thaw” by members of the media.

Tense relations between the two nations have existed since the 1960s, when the Cold War aim of the United States to combat the rise of Communism in the world caused the proximity of Communist Cuba to be a threat.

This culminated most notably in the Cuban Missile Crisis from October 14–28, 1962, when the U.S., Cuba and the U.S.S.R. entered heated debate and potential armed conflict over U.S. warheads in Turkey aimed at the U.S.S.R. and Soviet warheads in Cuba aimed at the U.S.

Despite the lackluster history between the two nations – including a longstanding American embargo of Cuba – the aformentioned diplomatic easement between the two nations has both Cubans and Americans hopeful about the future and interested in understanding the positions of the other side.

“History is a study of perspectives and often times we are caught up within our own experiences of the past” junior Mackenzie Collins explained. “Going to Cuba was refreshing as it allowed us to understand the events that occurred there during the Cold War through their own lens,”

Collins added that “While it might be biased, very few Americans have the ability to be part of the Cuban experience and fathom their own interpretations of history. Not only were we there to comprehend the Cuban view of certain historical events such as the Bay of Pigs invasion, but we were also witnessing the progress of history as we were some of the first people to visit Cuba after the United States and Cuba began to normalize relations.”

Senior Olivia Babine added that “Going to Cuba was a truly amazing experience. As millennials, we don’t have much of an emotional connection to the Cold War the way our parents and grandparents do. The fractured Cuban-American relationship is one of the last remnants of the war and the chance to travel their and experience such a unique country was an opportunity that I could not give up.”

Masur and Pajakowski joked that while the Cuban people they spoke with are optimistic about the Cuban Thaw and hold no grudge against the American people, the “official line” among Cubans is that American-Cuban complications during the Cold War era are “All [America’s] fault.”

Both professors highlighted the hospitality of the Cuban people that their tour group came into contact with, with Masur sharing that some students went out of there way to speak with local Cubans outside of the locations of their planned tour.

While Pajakowski shared that the group practiced typical touristic caution, he explained that nothing caused them reason to be concerned for their safety.

The students and professors both spoke particularly positively about three lectures delivered by local scholars during the trip.

Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray Treto delivered one of these lectures, during which he discussed the Cuban Thaw from his country’s point of view.

“[The lecture was] one of the best moments during the trip,” senior Griffin Roberge shared. “I thought it interesting to hear about it from a Cuban perspective.”

Roberge added that “[Treto] also discussed how a powerful minority in Congress has the power to impede the reconstruction of relations between our two countries, which directly related to what I addressed in my senior thesis.”

For Babine, “Visiting the Bay of Pigs was probably one of the best parts because the ocean was beautiful and we got to see it when the sun set.”

The Bay of Pigs – located on the southern coast of Cuba – was the location of a failed U.S. military invasion that took place from April 17-19, 1961 with the intetion of overthrowing the Communist regime of then Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Pajakowski added that he and Masur found it incredible to visit the Bay of Pigs just a week after having discussed it in class.

Regarding the class itself, both professors explained that team-teaching the class is a necessity in order to ensure that it runs properly.

Pajakowski elaborated that the “Cold War is too big a subject to teach otherwise,” with Masur adding that it “Works that we both bring something different to class” in terms of experience and expertise.

Both professors agreed that they would like to incorporate a trip to Cuba as a regular element of the course.

Additionally, Masur commented that he would like to see if the cost of future trips could be defrayed through Financial Aid, as this group of students had to pay for the trip completely with their own money.

Regarding the trip itself, Masur explained that it was not only “Enjoyable, but successful, as we wanted students to learn something about Cuban society, history and hos they see the Cold War.”

Pajakowski added that the students were indeed eager to “Make the most of their experience.”

Babine echoed this sentiment, sharing that “Visiting Cuba was like stepping into a time portal with all the old axis and communist propaganda that was everywhere.

Babine added that “The culture was so warm and welcoming and every day we got to listen to traditional Cuban music. The Playa Giron museum was very eye opening because we had the chance to see it from the Cuban perspective. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.”

Roberge also agreed, explaining that “I really did enjoy the trip to Cuba and am looking forward to any opportunity to go back again. Professors Masur and Pajakowski did an amazing job organizing the trip for the students to experience the history and culture of Cuba.”