For years, Cuba has remained geographically near yet culturally distant from the democratic and capitalistic society of America.
Cuba remains a communist state headed by Fidel Castro, but "capitalism is coming back with a vengeance," said Jos?(c) Buscaglia, director of the two study abroad programs to Cuba and assistant professor of modern language and literature. The growth of the Cuban tourism industry is the biggest push from that direction, one that brings both benefits and drawbacks to the society.
According to Buscaglia, the tourism industry in Cuba has led to the ever-widening gap between what he termed the "haves," or tourists, and "have-nots," the Cubans in the service industries that support tourism, providing anything "from sex to anything else above - and below - that," said Buscaglia.
The average income of a worker in Cuba is $10 a month, but the cost of supporting a family of three for a month's time is around $100.
Still, Buscaglia said is an affordable place to live.
The city, stated Irlam, provides "a rare glimpse into a fascinating city and a unique society and culture under conditions that are surely soon to disappear."
"It is a city were you walk through it at night and you can see the Milky Way," he said. Despite poor lighting and the resulting dark alleys, "anyone who lays a hand on a tourist is going to get their hand cut off" because tourists bring in such crucial income.
Julie Ramirez, one of the participants in the summer program, has an aunt who lives in Cuba, where she practices medicine at the local hospital. Despite her age - 81 years old - and the fact that waiters are paid better than doctors, she continues to walk to work every day.
"She wants to help people out," said Ramirez.
"My overall impressions of Havana are of an incredibly beautiful natural and urban setting of great historical and architectural significance, but scarred by decades of impoverishment and dilapidation," stated Charles Stinger, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, in an e-mail. ". Once major western capital investment becomes possible, this fragile world will be placed under enormous stress, especially from a global tourism industry."
Despite the recent increase in tourism, Cubans remain somewhat alone in the world, according to Stinger.
"They suffer from isolation, and chafe at shortages of teaching and research materials, but they are highly intelligent, thoughtful, and wonderfully gracious hosts," stated Stinger.
The Cubans have a "sense of what the world is like, even though they can't visit it," said Buscaglia.
Shortages of basic teaching supplies such as pens, paper and notebooks are prevalent in Cuba, said Ramirez. When passing out handouts, professors may bring in only two copies of the sheet that the entire class must then share.
The paper shortage also meant that students, while able to access computers through the university's computer room, had to provide their own paper for printing.
"They definitely don't have the technology we do here," said Ramirez. ". Internet access was really, really bad."
Entertainment is similarly limited.
"Because TV sucks in Cuba, there's not really any major shopping areas or places where you have to pay for entertainment," said Buscaglia. "People entertain themselves." Only two television stations, both government-run, are available in Cuba, but can be interrupted at any time for an address by Castro.
As a result, the Cuban people rely more on themselves for entertainment. "They don't have any time to lose," Buscaglia said. "They live life to the fullest."
"The absense of an 'entertainment industry' throws people back on their own resources and as a consequence, our students will encounter an intensity of creative (literature, theatre, dance, fine arts and of course music, music, music), intellectual and cultural energy that has not been anesthetized by consumerism and televisual culture," he stated.
"They relish in the interplay of conversation, and they all love and take pride in the musical and artistic heritage of their country," stated Stinger.