No embargo on Friendship

St.Thomas ? Cuba partnerships flourish following unforgettable week in January

Pitching coach Don Roney might have said it best. After returning from a week in Cuba last January with 58 other St. Thomas baseball players, faculty and staff, Roney remarked that "I continue to think about Cuba just about every day … it changed me in ways I’m just learning about."

Another staff member who made the trip, Mark Schneider, director of International Student Services, lent this perspective to those seven days that the St. Thomas travelers will never forget: "You aren’t just encountering another culture, you are encountering yourself."

There was a whole lot of encountering going on in Cuba: St. Thomas students formed friendships with their Cuban counterparts; faculty forged academic and personal ties with Havana colleagues; the Rev. Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas, continued to strengthen St. Thomas’ ties to Cuba and his friendship with Dr. Juan Vela Valdez, rector of the University of Havana.

And back home, thanks to a week of front-page newspaper stories and near-nightly television coverage, Minnesotans encountered a spunky and even courageous side of St. Thomas that many hadn’t seen before.

St. Thomas in Cuba? People would blink at the news and ask: What? How did a private, liberal arts, Catholic university from northern United States wind up playing baseball with the University of Havana? Isn’t there an embargo? Aren’t they communists? Aren’t they supposed to be the enemy?

Maybe it happened because St. Thomas isn’t a public university, or isn’t branded as extremely liberal or conservative. Maybe because St. Thomas, with the nation’s fourth-largest business school, carries the kind of free-enterprise credentials that allowed it to successfully pull off such a visit to one of the world’s few remaining communist nations.

Dease explained that the trip was about much more than baseball, it was another in a series of steps the university is taking in a long-term effort of adopting Latin America as a focus for international studies.

"Cuba provides a unique opportunity because it is a country closed for so long to America," he told the Pioneer Press’ Jim Caple last January. "We’re starting to open up to it, and this trip allows students to see American foreign policy at work. It allows them to see how socialism works. And our faculty see a lot of opportunity here."

The seeds of the trip were planted a year in advance. In January 1999, a group of 17 staff and faculty traveled to Cuba to explore possibilities for academic and cultural relationships. It was on that trip that the idea of a baseball game first surfaced.

"They asked about our athletics and said it would be great for us to come down and play," recalled Dean of Student Life Dr. Alan Sickbert. "They love sports in Cuba … they also see it as a way to break down some of the barriers between the United States and Cuba."

It’s a long road, however, from suggestion to reality. That is due, in part, to the U.S. trade embargo that has closed Cuba to most Americans for four decades. Some of those restrictions are beginning to thaw, and St. Thomas took advantage of embargo exceptions that now allow limited levels of humanitarian aid and educational exchange.

Last fall, the university received two licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department to participate in educational and baseball activities in Cuba. The next step was the official approval from the Cuban government, and that one was a nail-biter.

Bringing a baseball team from the United States to Cuba isn’t a routine undertaking. Other than a visit from the Baltimore Orioles last spring, only one other U.S. baseball team — from Johns Hopkins University in 1986 — had been allowed to play on the island since Fidel Castro came to power about 40 years ago.

A go-or-no-go deadline was set for late December by St. Thomas as the latest possible date to receive formal Cuban approval. Beyond that date, it would be impossible to organize all the details for the trip.

Later that same morning, on Jan. 3, Valdez called Dease. "It has been approved," he said. "Our two teams can play baseball here in Havana." The university had 23 days to take care of 23 million details before the plane would leave. In that time, St. Thomas learned two important lessons about dealing with Cuba: be patient, and be flexible.

The word "flexible" actually became the unofficial trip motto. Dr. Miriam Williams, associate vice president for academic affairs, coined the motto on the first day of the trip. She stood in front of the bus explaining the day’s itinerary. "Now remember everyone, we’ve got to be flexible. Flexible, flexible, flexible."

It was good advice. When plans changed, even abruptly, no one seemed to mind. It was just part of the Cuban experience. Instead of complaining, people would just shrug it off. It was almost more fun when things did get a little mixed up, and as the week wore on, the St. Thomas travelers would smile and ask: "So are you still flexible?"

Two important things happened before the trip. The first was a $100,000 grant from the Carl and Eloise Pohlad Family Foundation that covered expenses for St. Thomas to travel to Cuba and will pay for the Cubans to come to Minnesota for a return visit and baseball game the week of May 8.

The second was a charter 727 provided by Sun Country Airlines, allowing St. Thomas to send 59 staff, faculty and students, instead of the 40 originally planned. There also was room on board for a dozen newspaper and television journalists. The charter received special permission to fly directly from the Twin Cities to Havana.

Most of the additional passengers were faculty who would be making contacts or working on projects in Cuba. Although baseball garnered the headlines, it represented just a slice of the St. Thomas activity in Havana and the surrounding countryside.

The extra room on the plane also meant there was room for presents. Mizuno USA helped underwrite $7,500 worth of top-quality new baseball gear that was given to the Havana team. An anonymous company donated boxes of nonprescription medical supplies. And everyone from St. Thomas brought a gift kit full of $20 for $40 worth of items that are difficult for Cubans to buy, like over-the-counter medicines, soap, socks and pens. Coach Dennis Denning brought a pile of used baseball gloves gathered from his years as a Little League and high school coach.

In a country where everyone, from doctors to professors to police officers to cigar rollers, earns between $20 and $35 a month, the gifts were deeply appreciated and graciously received. Some of those new gloves from Mizuno, for example, would easily represent six months of wages for an average Cuban.

The feeling of being extremely wealthy was a new one for most in the St. Thomas delegation. St. Paul Pioneer Press photographer John Doman showed up for breakfast at the hotel one morning profoundly humbled by an experience while out on a short stroll. A man had asked him for a few cents, and even though Doman knew he wasn’t supposed to, he gave the man a dollar. "It was the first time anyone had ever kneeled down and kissed my feet," Doman said.

Another thing the St. Thomas people were told to expect was friendliness, but that was another dimension of Cuba that was hard to believe until experienced. Given the history of U.S.-Cuban relations, especially over the past 40 years, and against the backdrop of the Elian Gonzalez custody dispute, it was simply difficult to anticipate a friendly reception. Yet the warmth that Cubans showed the St. Thomas visitors was the common theme they shared in telling stories about their week in Cuba.

Cubans would ask, "Are you from the U.S.?" When the answer was "Si," they would offer words of welcome, give the thumbs up or simply flash a warm smile. The Cubans explained that they clearly differentiate between citizens of the United States and the policies of the U.S. government.

A month after returning from the trip, Gail Brown, a producer at Channel 5, recalled the kind of reception she and her news crew experienced not just in Havana, but throughout the island. "Nobody is a stranger in Cuba. That’s it, it’s so pervasive; this sense of community and warmth and the way they welcome you. It’s so striking. Maybe it is because they don’t have anything, except each other."

While the week was packed with an exhausting array of cultural and educational activities, it did have a focal point: 2 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 26, on the sun-drenched fields of the massive Estadio Latinamericano (Latin American Stadium) where the Tommies would face Equipo Caribe (Team Caribbean) a team comprised of top players from the University of Havana and Polytechnic Institute Jose Antonio Echeverria, a nearby technical university.

It was hard to tell what might happen. St. Thomas Coach Dennis Denning knew he’d be facing a tough opponent, some of the best college players from a country where baseball is the No. 1, hands-down national passion. But the Tommies, who finished second nationally last season in the NCAA Division III, had the Cubans plenty nervous.

The afternoon began with both teams parading onto the field, led by players holding their nations’ flags, and the two national anthems blasting from the stadium loudspeakers. Dease was invited to give opening remarks, and in clear Spanish, he told the crowd of 6,000 that "this game is for us an expression of the friendship and solidarity that exists between our two university communities."

Dease remarked about the warmth of the Cuban climate and its people, and offered remarks in support of the return of Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy being kept in Miami by relatives after his mother died in an attempt to flee Cuba in a small boat last fall.

The game was a thriller. The Tommies scored once in the first inning, followed by sixth innings of closely matched, scoreless play, before adding six runs in the eighth. The final score was 7-0, and everyone wished it would have been closer. "We wanted to beat them," said player Dan Novak, "but it was like playing your friends."

"St. Thomas sent the best ambassadors it possibly could have," said Associate Athletic Director JoAnn Andregg. "Each player extended warmth and friendship to the Cubans. They understood what was expected, and they exceeded every expectation placed on them. This really opened my eyes about the role of athletics in international communication."

The adrenalin barely had time to settle down from Wednesday’s game when it came flooding back the following night. The St. Thomas group was invited by the University of Havana to participate in an annual midnight torch parade honoring Jose Marti, revered in Cuba as the father of its independence from Spain.

(In a way, Marti is even revered in St. Paul. There’s a bust of him on the second floor of the Ramsey County Courthouse. The inscription reads: "Jose Marti. The Great Liberator of the Republic of Cuba. Presented to the City of St. Paul, the home city of U.S. Ambassador Robert Butler, by the Republic of Cuba. In appreciation of his courageous work in creating a warm feeling between our two countries.")

Marti was born in 1853 in Havana, and the midnight march has been held on the eve of his birthday since 1953. This year the march was dedicated to the return of Elian. Participation by St. Thomas students, staff and faculty was voluntary, but nearly everyone attended out of respect for their University of Havana hosts and because they didn’t want to miss seeing another fascinating part of Cuban culture.

As midnight approached, 30,000 Cubans and about 50 Minnesotans gathered on the massive university steps. Most marchers carried a Cuban flag or a torch, and with music blaring from loudspeakers they walked briskly six blocks to the site of a brightly lit Marti museum for speeches.

Dease called the event "quite a grand ending to our week … the experience gave our students a chance to glimpse the soul of the University of Havana. This should help them understand their new friends better."

While baseball garnered headlines back home, St. Thomas faculty members quietly belted homeruns of their own by leading seminars, developing joint research projects and laying groundwork for future academic exchange.

For Dr. Sonia Feigenbaum, the trip was a dream come true. Born in France, she earned her doctorate in Hispanic literature at Indiana University and wrote her dissertation on Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier. As a graduate student, she said "it never crossed my mind" that someday she would be able to visit the island.

She teaches Latin American literature and Spanish at St. Thomas and has been able to visit there three times to work on an anthology of living Cuban women poets.

Dr. David Landry and Dr. Bernard Brady of the Theology Department visited the Martin Luther King Center in Havana and laid plans for a 2002 January Term course. They hope to bring 25 students to the center for a monthlong peace and justice studies course, which would include a "service learning" component, such as helping farmers or building homes.

Dr. Bernice Folz, director of Graduate Programs in Software Engineering, and software faculty member Dr. Bonnie Holte Bennett visited Cuban computer classes and faculty and will return in May to present papers at an international conference. They also are making plans for other members of the St. Thomas software faculty to present seminars in Havana.

This was Folz’ second trip, and she noticed a different reception. "I felt as though there was a deeper sense of trust this time," she said. "They were more open, and really wanted to get down to work."

Dr. Robert Werner, chair of the Geography Department, and Dr. James Vincent, whose specialty is environmental economics, also have made two trips to Cuba and will return this summer to present a workshop on "Economic Analysis for Environmental Protection." They are planning the workshop with the University of Havana, but government leaders and faculty from Cuba’s 15 universities are expected to participate.

During the January visit, Werner gave a workshop in Havana on one of his specialties, geographic information systems, a discipline used to analyze information found on maps.

Werner and Vincent also joined Landry, Dr. Mark Neuzil, journalism, and biologists Dr. Amy Verhoeven and Dr. Michael DeJong on trips to some of Cuba’s rural areas. They saw swamps and hills and visited an alligator farm and the Bay of Pigs. Still mired in the beach sand are landing craft used in the 1961 attempted invasion by about 1,400 U.S.-trained Cuban exiles.

DeJong, who chairs the St. Thomas Biology Department, is making plans for a 2002 January Term field research course in Cuba. A specialist in animal behavior and birds, DeJong was able to see some species of birds found only in Cuba, as well as some birds like egrets, warblers and turkey vultures that spend summers in Minnesota and winters in Cuba.

A stream of Cubans also are beginning to visit St. Thomas. Feigenbaum hosted a mid-March visit by prominent Cuban poet Mirta Yanez. The head of Cuba’s Federation of University Students and a Cuban education official from Washington stopped by, followed by a three-day visit by four Cuban social scientists.

Fernando Remirez de Estenoz, chief of the Cuban Interests Section (similar to an embassy) in Washington, will speak to a St. Thomas Town and Gown Forum on May 8, the same week the University of Havana baseball team will be in St. Paul for a re-match against the Tommies.

Several University of Havana scholars will spend the fall semester teaching at St. Thomas. Latin American specialist Dr. Patricia Howe of the St. Thomas History Department will team-teach an honors course on Cuban history with Esteban Moreles of the University of Havana. In January 2001, Howe and a professor from St. John’s University will lead a UST-SJU January Term course to Cuba.

More visits are expected in the months and years ahead, fostered by an official agreement of cooperation that Dease and Valdez signed at a formal farewell dinner and ceremony marking the end of St. Thomas’ week in Cuba.

Roney not only brought home a week of never-to-be-forgotten memories, but some sure-fire parental ammunition. "When my little ones ask for things," Roney reports with an unmistakable twinkle in his eye, "I tell them that in Cuba the children don’t have anything and they are very happy … so why can’t you be happy?"

It is a thought, no doubt, pondered by all who returned from the eight days in Havana.