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Despite international tensions, 'Cuba in Transition' study abroad sees no change

Miami's Cuba in Transition study abroad program is set to bring 22 students to the island nation this January, despite a recent flare in tensions between the United States and Cuba.

Only 90 miles apart by sea, but separated by a complicated history, Cuba and the United States are the will-they-won't-they couple of the geopolitical world.

It's precisely this ever-changing history that's the draw of Miami's Cuba in Transition winter-term study abroad trip, says international studies professor Juan Carlos Albarran, who co-teaches the class.

"It's not stagnant. There's always something," he said.

The latest "something" in U.S.-Cuba relations is President Trump's expulsion of Cuban diplomats from their Washington D.C. embassy, which was only officially reestablished under the Obama Administration after decades of hostility.

The move to remove the Cuban diplomats comes after a partial evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Havana due to a rash of headaches, cognitive issues and dizziness in workers at the embassy. The source of the symptoms, which were reported in a Sept. 29 State Department travel warning, is currently unknown.

"So far, the status of where we are today, the incidents that have taken place are not any grounds for cancelling the trip," said Albarran.

Both Albarran and Melanie Ziegler, a Latin American studies professor and the other teacher on the program, say they are monitoring the situation alongside the Global initiatives office and paying attention to the response of other universities planning excursions to Cuba.

Cuba in Transition is one of at least three Cuban study abroad workshops that different departments at Miami University offered in the past several years.

Both the Farmer School of Business in Cuba program and the Media, Journalism and Film (MJF) department's Stories from Cuba program are no longer active.

"Global Initiatives is encouraging all departments and divisions to make strategic choices about what programs they offer,"wrote Lynn Butler, a Miami study abroad advisor, commenting by email on the withdrawal of the two programs. "They are asked to consider student needs in terms of academics as well as student interest in the academic content and location."

Finding willing faculty and interested students for study abroad programs can be difficult, says said Patti Newberry, a journalism professor and former co-teacher of the Stories from Cuba class. This is especially true in the midst of the large number of study abroad programs offered by Miami faculty, she said.

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"It's really great for student choice, but it makes things competitive. It really does come down to a feeling that you're competing with the office next to you."

Cuba in Transition, which has been offered to Miami students since 2014, takes an interdisciplinary and hands-on approach to Cuban history, politics and culture.

"One day we are teaching in the park, the next day we have a class in the hotel lobby, or it could be in the bus while we are traveling to our next destination," said Albarran.

The locale of Havana, where the class is centered, is a unique one. Spanish forts, brutalist Soviet architecture and brightly painted facades coexist along the famous Malecon, a highway and seawall that spans the length of the city and serves a nighttime perch for Cubans young and old.

Beyond structural changes in the city, the class touches on organic farming, ecotourism and other adjustments to Cuban life that developed after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A native Cuban, Albarran has family on the island that he introduces to students, yielding an intimate perspective to daily life and culture on the island.

"We have a rooftop Cuban meal in a Cuban neighborhood with his relatives and there's dancing," said Ziegler. "It's a special moment for the kids."