March 2018
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FROM THE UNITED STATES TO CUBA (BUT NOT NECESSARILY FROM CUBA TO THE UNITED STATES): THE CHALLENGES OF INTERNATIONAL COLLABORATION IN THE CURRENT POLITICAL CLIMATE
Gloria Ward, Northern Virginia Community College, Alexandria, Virginia, USA

In March 2017, a year after President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, I was with a colleague driving through the Cuban countryside with some English language professors from Universidad de Granma (UDG) in Manzanillo, Laritza Pantoja Tamayo and Eduardo Escalona Pardo. A large roadside sign read, Bloqueo. El genocidio mas largo de la historia, which translates to “Blockade. The longest genocide in history.” I had been to Cuba once before and saw a sign just like this one in another town. I explained to my colleague, an American professor like me, that the bloqueo was the same as the United States’ embargo against Cuba. “No,” interjected Laritza. “They are not the same.” She explained that the United States blocks other countries from economic engagement with Cuba, severely impacting the Cuban government’s ability to generate income and greatly limiting a wide range of goods from getting to the Cuban people. The difference isn’t just semantics. Embargo refers to “…an economic sanction constituting a legitimate government action that legally restricts the flow of goods, services, and capital…in order to try to influence the Castro regime into changing its undemocratic ways…” while bloqueo refers to “…an illegitimate use of power to try to make the state march to a different tune – one not of its own sovereign imagination or desire” (Hernández-Truyol, 2009, p. 55). These definitions reveal sharp differences in perspectives and values of the U.S. and Cuban governments, respectively. After Laritza explained the difference between embargo and bloqueo, I realized how little I knew and that moment has led to a greater awareness of the effects of the bloqueo, which complicates international collaboration between American and Cuban researchers.

Two years before my visit, the United States and Cuba took steps toward normalization in President Obama’s final year in office. The same year, I attended a Friends of Cuba Forum session at the TESOL annual convention, in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. I went to the session because my father and grandparents came to the United States from Cuba in 1950. I was born and raised in Miami, Florida, USA, living there until I was almost 30. Despite my roots, I had been living in a bubble, unaware of the intricacies of the relationship between the United States and Cuba.

Soon after, an opportunity for travel to Cuba arose. George Mason University offers Afro Cuban Dance in situ each year, and I enrolled in the class with another ESL colleague, Peter Ruffner. Neither of us are dancers, but that didn’t stop us. Our group traveled for 11 days to the less traveled eastern region of the island, El Oriente, learning about Cuban history and culture through its music and dance traditions. The experience was life changing, and I felt drawn to El Oriente, vowing to return.

Back in the United States, Araceli Bachner, a communications studies colleague, approached me about doing an interdisciplinary project in Cuba. We decided to investigate English language teaching in Cuba. Finding English language professors in Cuba was not straightforward. I found the websites of Cuban universities, but oftentimes, no professors’ names were listed and if they were listed, then their email addresses were not included. Using LinkedIn, I found four professors and sent each a brief introduction and proposal for collaboration. This was how I connected with Laritza, who responded the next day.

Eight months after initiating contact, Laritza, Eduardo, and other English language faculty at UDG welcomed us to Manzanillo. We went to the Casa de la Cultura for a full day’s program about English language teaching led by the faculty with student participation. Araceli and I were treated like dignitaries as Americans are rare in Granma Province. Journalists interviewed me and the story of Americans visiting UDG was aired on the radio and published in a few newspapers. There was no doubt that the faculty were just as interested in learning from us as we were in learning from them.

This initial exploration in Manzanillo was powerful, and we all committed to finding a project that would work for our mutual benefit. However, as Cubans say, No es fácil, meaning, “It is not easy.” Though the UDG faculty and I are currently attempting to formalize a collaborative partnership, there have been limiting factors.

When I first initiated contact with the UDG professors, President Obama was still in office and though the bloqueo was (and is) still in effect, the relationship between the United States and Cuba had warmed considerably. The U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has 12 categories of authorized travel for Americans who wish to travel to Cuba. President Obama modified one of the categories, travel for educational activities, permitting Americans to travel solo rather than signing up for pricey group excursions to Cuba. Americans were visiting Cuba in record numbers.

Ten months after the trip to Manzanillo, Donald Trump was inaugurated, promising to cancel Obama’s Cuban policies. Because of the new administration’s stance, our nascent project was on shaky ground. If the new administration eliminated travel for professional research (the OFAC category I use), then the UDG professors and I would have no way to collaborate.

In June 2017, President Trump announced the changes to Cuban policy, but when the new regulations were published in November, only one change to the travel categories was made. For nonacademic educational activities, Americans once again had to travel in groups rather than individually. Americans could still travel to Cuba.

The UDG professors and I were able to breathe again. We began working on developing several projects. The first and most important is the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between my institution, Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), and UDG. The MOU would formalize the relationship between the two schools, allowing faculty to collaborate much more easily. In that first trip to Manzanillo, Araceli and I were not granted permission to enter the campus despite the request being submitted more than 5 months in advance. For that reason, the professors and students met us at the Casa de la Cultura instead. The same thing happened in December 2017 when Peter and I traveled to Manzanillo. Our request for access to the campus was denied once again. I feel fairly confident that if there were no bloqueo, this would not have been an issue. At this time, the MOU is still in Cuba, pending approval.

Besides the MOU, Laritza, Eduardo, and I decided to participate in professional development domestically and internationally.

Cuba’s TESOL affiliate, GELI, or Grupo de Especialistas en Lengua Inglesa, has a biannual convention in Havana. Laritza and Eduardo became members of GELI and were selected to present at the 23rd GELI conference in December 2017 about the mutual benefits of collaboration between native- and nonnative-English-speaking teachers. Laritza, Eduardo, Peter, and I traveled to Havana to present at the conference and met with the organizers, the professors from other Cuban provinces, as well as other Americans. It was the first time in Havana for Peter and me and only the second time for Eduardo. We stayed at an Airbnb in downtown, centrally located between the two convention venues, the Instituto de Literatura y Lingüística and the Alliance Francaise. Adita Chiappy, GELI’s president, and Nury Vázquez and Miriam Lopez of GELI’s Organizing Committee work tirelessly to host English language professionals in Havana for their convention, and we were grateful for the chance to participate and look forward to returning.

In addition to GELI, Laritza and Eduardo wanted to attend the TESOL convention in Chicago, Illinois, USA. They had appointments to be interviewed at the U.S. embassy in Havana, but the U.S. Department of State announced that visas would no longer be processed there because of safety concerns regarding the injuries suffered by diplomatic stuff apparently resulting from sonic attacks. Instantly, Laritza and Eduardo’s travel to the United States became a prohibitively expensive endeavor. Then, amazingly, a few months later, Eduardo was informed he was a winner of the Betty Azar Travel Grant to help defer TESOL travel-related expenses. Though he would have had to travel to a U.S. embassy in another country for his interview to gain entry into the U.S., the grant money could have covered that. Unfortunately, Eduardo had to forfeit the award as he needed the approval of the Cuban government to travel internationally for work purposes and there was not enough time for them to review his request.

Life in Cuba is very different than life in the United States. The average monthly salary for Cuban professors is US $25. They do not, however, have the same financial obligations that many Americans have, such as student loans, mortgages, car payments, or healthcare costs. A simple cell phone costs US $75. Some Cubans receive remittances from friends and relatives abroad, but many do not. Though most cities in Cuba have Wi-Fi in their plazas, it is not free and only a tiny percentage of Cubans have Wi-Fi in their homes. Using WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger costs them money because they have to pay for Wi-Fi. I can use an app, Boss Revolution, to call my Cuban colleagues at 83 cents a minute. A call to China would cost me a penny a minute. There are blackouts resulting from the government’s attempt to conserve money through energy rationing. Though it is legal for Cubans to travel abroad, it is, as you can see, practically impossible.

While I have loved working with these amazingly persistent and resilient Cuban professors, the specter of the bloqueo looms over our work, which could evaporate from a shift in the political winds. Geoff Thale, Washington Office on Latin America Program Director, believes that engagement, not isolation, is the answer (2016). However, until the bloqueo is gone, it is vital that American ELTs take the initiative to reach out to Cuban ELTs in the spirit of friendship, because almost 60 years of isolation have only made life more difficult for all of us.

References

Hernández-Truyol, B. (2009). Embargo or blockade? The legal and moral dimensions of the U.S. economic sanctions on Cuba. Intercultural human rights law review, 4, 53–85. Retrieved from http://scholarship.law.ufl.edu
/facultypub/192

Thale, G. (2016). How U.S. policy could improve human rights and political debate in Cuba. Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Retrieved from https://www.wola.org/analysis/u-s-policy-improve-human-rights-
political-debate-cuba/


Gloria Ward has been teaching English and English language at high schools in Miami, Florida, USA, and San Diego, California, USA, as well as at Northern Virginia Community College. She lives in Washington, DC.

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Next Issue's Theme: Continuing the Conversation, Building Solidarity
How can we build a strong community for social justice in TESOL? What conversations should we continue beyond the convention? How can dialogue build solidarity? Submissions due 1 May 2018.