URI students take in hip-hop, Hemingway, baseball during recent trip to Cuba

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KINGSTON, R.I., Jan. 23, 2015 – The old Chevys were charming, Hemingway’s house was “cool” and the Museum of the Revolution was moving, but it was the pickup baseball game with a bunch of 10-year-olds that Tyler Figgis ’15 remembers most about his trip to Cuba over winter break.

They played under palm trees in a small village. A stick sufficed as a bat; scars marked the baseballs. Still, Figgis and his URI classmates had the experience of a lifetime.

“We got clobbered,” says Figgis, of Stratford, Conn. “But the fact that we were in Cuba playing the national sport was incredible.”

It’s impressive enough that Figgis and 19 other URI students visited the country Jan. 10 through 16 as part of URI’s J-term offerings, but even more compelling that the journey came a few weeks after the United States restored diplomatic ties with the nation, ending a 65-year-old embargo imposed after Fidel Castro came to power.

“It was perfect timing,” says URI political science professor Maureen Moakley, who went on the trip and expects to return in April to talk to Cuban academics about creating a semester abroad program for URI students. “Everyone was engaged and enthusiastic.”

That’s an understatement. The students spent 10 days touring the island, visiting museums, universities and hospitals; living with families in the countryside; talking with writers and artists; and even rapping with a hip-hop singer. They gobbled down rice and black beans, sweet-tasting tomatoes and salads made with greens plucked from organic farms.

Along the way, they documented their travels with photos – lots of them: students marching through corn fields; students by a 1950 aqua-marine Chevy; students standing in front of a mural of the rebel leader Castro; students strolling the streets of Havana, with its cobblestone streets and worn-out shutters.

They were eager to tell their stories when they got back.

“The Revolution is very much alive in Cuba,” says Figgis. “They don’t have any commercial advertising – no ads for Coca-Cola, just billboards of Castro and Che Guevara. Not a lot of capitalism going on down there.”

That’s expected to change – quickly. U.S. Congressional leaders are already making trips to the island to drum up business, which should translate into money and jobs for Cubans, says Jason Rosenblum ’15, of Howell, N.J.

“When I told people I’m from the United States their whole demeanor changed,” he says. “They got really happy, especially the younger generation. They have even less reason to leave now.”

Two things stood out for him: Cubans are highly educated, thanks to an excellent public education system; and they’re aware of what’s going on beyond their Communist-run island, just 90 miles from Florida. “They’re not as isolated as people think,” says Rosenblum, who snapped 1,000 photos. “They knew about politics and music all over the world.”

He says Cubans also admire Americans, which he found surprising considering the decades of tension. “They love Obama,” says Rosenblum. “They can’t wait to be able to trade with the United States and travel back and forth.”

Yet Cubans still have great appreciation for their government, says Mike Gilligan ’16 of Charlestown, R.I. “Before the trip, I thought Cubans were tired of their regime.” No way. Gilligan says they have faith in their government.

Gianelle Alba ’15, of Providence, experienced a Cuba far different from the one she learned about in American history books. “I was taught that Cuba was a controlling, violent country. It wasn’t. Cubans are the happiest people I’ve ever met. It was mind blowing.”

The trip was such a hit Moakley and economics professor Richard McIntyre, who also went, expect to go back next year with a new group of students. Future student travelers take note: spots are expected to fill up fast.

“This is the beginning of an annual J-term trip for URI,” says Moakley. “Visiting Cuba is a wonderful way to enhance URI’s global education initiative.”

Pictured above: Scenes from Cuba during a URI student trip to the country, Jan. 6 through 10, as part of the University’s J-term offerings. Photos by Jason Rosenblum ’15.