Category: Director’s Blog

One Month Director´s Report

The 2013 Alabama-in-Cuba group has now been in Cuba for an entire month.  As is my custom at this juncture, I now provide a report of our activities, our classes, and our behavior.

I am quite pleased with all aspects of this group of 10 students.  They have thrown themselves into the idea of living and studying in Cuba with enthusiasm and a great deal of intellectual curiosity.  The group is taking a class— film studies– with Cuban students their own age and this has been an eye-opening experience.  Seems a Cuban classroom differs somewhat from what we are accustomed to in the States.  But this is a unique opportunity for the UA students.  Not only do they get to hear all varieties of Spanish, they also have the chance to meet and become friends with Cubans from all walks of life.  The core course with Professors Raul and Rosa is going well as usual.  In this class, the students get an in depth look—from the Cuban perspective—of the often strained relations between Cuba and the USA.  In their class with Professor Rita, our students are researching a wide variety of Cuban culture—from dance, to art, to music and much more.  In my class, they are exposed to a wide range of cultural aspects.  One week we visited the Catholic church, Santa Rita and spoke at length with the priest, José Félix, about the role of the Church within a Socialist structure.  The UA students asked a myriad of penetrating questions about both the past and the present of Catholicism within the Castro regime.  In another class, Pepe Vázquez, and biologist from the University of San Gerónimo, spoke on a variety of topics and answered a long list of questions.  In this class, the students are also working hard on their semester projects which they will present in Spanish during the first week of May.

In regard to travel, we have been quite busy.  We have already hundreds of kilometers to the West in Viñales to see the ¨mogotes,¨ caves, and green hills of that zone.   We have also been to the famous orchid farm in Soroa, the Hemingway Museum, Cojimar (where Hemingway fished and drank), and to the beautiful resort area in Varadero.  Within La Habana we have seen the impressive Bellas Artes Museum, the Martí Tower, the Partagás Tobacco Factory, the Orisha Museum (Santería), Obispo Street, and the annual Book Fair.

And we still have much to see!

The students´ behavior has been first rate.  They are respecting the program rules, arriving on time (usually), and taking a great interest in their classwork and in Cuba.

Two Month Director´s Report

The second month of our adventure here in Cuba has been exceedingly busy. From the academic standpoint, the students have had a steady flow of tests and exams. From the reports that I have received from their Cuban professors they are doing quite well. They all continue to work on their semester projects and this next week we will have our first ¨dress rehearsal¨ so to speak.

Travel, we are literally burning up the roads. We spent a great weekend in Trinidad where we walked the cobblestone streets, climbed bell towers, squeezed our own sugar cane juice, and enjoyed stunning views of both mountains and sea. We also paid homage to Che Guevara in Santa Clara, rehashed the Fidel´s triumph in the Museum of the Revolution, visited the lions at the zoo, enjoyed time at the beach, admired the Napoleonic Museum, attended a production at the Karl Marx Theater, and traveled up the Cuban coast in a fishing boat. Just the other day we took a ferry boat across the bay to Regla, an area known for its deep roots in Santería. Just after getting off the ferry, we witnessed a Santería ceremony taking place at the edge of the bay. A priest was in the process of ¨cleansing¨ a young woman with a dead chicken.

Quite a month!

The students continue to use more and more Spanish. Some have picked up an amazing amount of local linguistic color. They all have by now completely mastered the bus system (guagua system) and the ¨máquinas.¨ They move about the city with great confidence, a task much more difficult than one might think.

But let´s not get ahead of ourselves. We still have almost a month here in Cuba and lots of work to do. The semester projects loom as the most challenging task but we also have trips to the United States Interest Section, Batabanó, the Bay of Pigs, and perhaps one last visit to the beach after a hard week of finals. In Cuba, it seems, one´s work is never entirely done.

One Month Director´s Report 2012

I am very proud of the (6) students in the 2012 edition of The University of Alabama semester program in Cuba. We have been here for a month now and the students have shown a great deal of intellectual curiosity, linguistic growth, and impressive behavior. We have been involved in a myriad of activities: from the weeklong conference with Cubans and UA professors, to moving award ceremonies and impressive guest lectures.

We have traveled extensively: Cojímar (where Hemingway fished and drank), the Hemingway Museum, Viñales (and the famous ¨mogotes¨), the ¨Cave of the Indians, ¨ Soroa (with its cascade, mirador, and famous orchid farm), the maqueta (where we first learned about the overall structure of La Habana), and the Habana Club rum museum (where we learned about the history of rum in Cuba especially in the 19th-century).

The students have also finalized the details for their semester projects (see our web page) which will be formally presented at the conclusion of the semester (power point, lecture, explanation). The topics this year are quite challenging and range from a study of diplomacy to tourism and the new interest in self-employment.

In Dr. Schnepf´s roundtable class we visited with the Catholic priest (José Félix) at Santa Rita in order to learn more about the history and the contemporary role of the church in a socialist country. Next, the class enjoyed the visit of a young anthropologist from the University of La Habana, Vanesa Vázquez, who spoke about her research on the role of women in Cuban society. Next in the roundtable, is a visit with Otto Randín, the man who joined the struggle against Batista in the 1950s and who is now in charge of all monuments in La Habana.

The students are progressing nicely in their other classes. In Cuban culture they are currently focusing on the historical trajectory of music and eventually will move on to dance, literature, and food. In their class dealing with relations between the US and Cuba, Rosa and Raúl (the two Cuban professors) are leading the students through the 19th century and will soon begin their explanations of more contemporary issues such as the Bay of Pigs (which we will visit) and the missile crisis.

This year the Alabama students are also taking a regular class at the University of La Habana along with Cuban students. The subject is US History, so the students will get the chance to see their own country´s history explained from a uniquely Cuban point of view. This curiosity along with the linguistic challenge will make Monday afternoons quite interesting for the (6) students from UA.

The Alabama students here in Cuba—Emily, Kate, Amanda, Molly, Corey, and Zach—all face difficult challenges: linguistic, cultural, nutritional, and social. But given what I have observed during this first month of intense activity, this impressive group of students and travelers is more than up to the task.

Bay of Pigs Excursion

2011 marks the 50th anniversary of Cuba’s victory over the USA at the Bay of Pigs.  So when this year’s group travelled to Playa Girón on April 8th we sensed an added historical component.   Accompanied by Professor Raúl Rodríguez, the Cuban photographer, Néstor Martí and his wife Yuli, we arrived at the Girón museum only after certain difficulties.  It seems that very April, the road to the Bay of pigs is the site of a huge crab migration that leaves the highway covered with the cadavers of hundreds of red crabs.  The smell is horrible and the view is bad, but the worst part is that these crabs have sharp claws, so sharp that they punctured a tire on one the two minivans and this caused a half hour delay. 

But the visit to the two museums, one in Australia and one in Girón, was worth the added work.  Professor Rodríguez gave us a detailed explanation of troop movements, battle plans, ‘enemy’ strategy, and final results.  We all came away slightly stunned at seeing ourselves as the ‘villains’ of the story and hearing the term ‘imperialista’ applied to us.  Not only did we get to see fascinating photos dealing with the battle, we also heard curious anecdotes about soldiers who died for Cuba while fighting against the USA.   The soldier who wrote Fidel’s name in blood and the young girl whose longed for white shoes were perforated by shrapnel were just two of the legends that remain from the battle.

Out trip home was also quite enjoyable.  We stopped at a restaurant on the beach called ‘Punta Perdiz,’ where we enjoyed a leisurely lunch of ‘cocodrilo,’ tomatoes, soup, and salad.  We also stayed on the beach long enough for the students to rent snorkel gear and enjoy the crystal clear waters of the ‘caribe.’

Trinidad Excursion

Early, very early on April 22 the University of Alabama group left for a two day stay in Trinidad, a beautiful colonial city located some 350 kilometers to the Southeast of La Habana.  After a five hour trip we arrived in the city and immediately began to explore.  The cobblestone streets make for difficult walking but persevered and enjoyed the many balconied windows where friends and neighbors sit to chat and observe the constant activity in the streets.  After a great deal of walking the students purchased some local art and we headed for our hotel, a beautiful resort type complex nestled in between the beautiful Escambray Mountains and the waters of ‘Mar Caribe.’  The students enjoyed a luxurious buffet supper while the director and his friend and driver, Ernesto, returned to the city to watch the moving Good Friday procession that began at the old Spanish church in the city square at 8.00 PM.

Director’s Report

Director’s Report 2

This last month has been a very busy one for Lizzie, Boyd, Pavia, Brad, Shelby, Boyd, and Professor Schnepf.  Classes are in full swing and papers and tests are now the order of the day.  The students are also dedicating a considerable amount of time to their semester projects that range from the role of Church in a socialist society to the inner workings of the ‘Oficina del Historiador.’

We have also been travelling a great deal in both the city and the provinces.  We have seen the famous ‘cañonazo’ at the fort, the world class tobacco factory, the rum museum, the botanical gardens and the zoo, and José Martí’s birthplace all within the boundaries of La Habana.  We have also made longer trips to Santa Clara, Varadero, and Batabanó.  This last trip was somewhat different.  Professor Schnepf had never been there before but we all agreed that it would be worthwhile to go exploring.  We left early Saturday morning driving straight south.  We found new different surroundings during the hour drive.  This is rice country and because there is more rain there the countryside is lusher and perhaps a bit more tropical.  When we hit the beach we immediately started to explore the mangrove and before long we were hiking through thick brush along the paths used by fishermen and charcoal workers.  The old fisherman we met tucked in among some trees and bushes on the beach showed us his catch and shared some stories with us.  Our ‘unofficial’ guide led us to several sites where the ancient tradition of charcoal making was carried out.  We learned that the giant ‘jicoteas,’ or tortoises come out during the rainy season and are hunted by the locals for their meat.  After an hour and a half work through this dense area we headed back to the pueblo for a delicious meal of lobster, rice, beans, and salad lunch at the home of our guide, Jaime.  Since lobster is one the main products of this region the lunch was actually quite economical.   On the way home we stopped by to see where the ferry that carries passengers to the Isla de la Juventud departs. 

During the month of April we have several other exciting trips on the agenda.  On April 8, we head to Playa Girón to learn see firsthand the site where the Bay of Pigs invasion took place.  And on April 22 we will take a long trip to Trinidad, the beautiful colonial city to the Southeast of La Habana. 

One Month Director Report

Alabama Semester program in Cuba

Dr. Michael Schnepf, Director

After one full month in Cuba, I am very pleased to report that all is going well.  Shelby, Lizzie, Brad, Pavia, Dillon, and Boyd have adapted well to the classes, the weather, the language, and the food.  Everyone is making an effort to speak as much Spanish as possible.  We have already travelled the West, to Viñales and the curious “mogotes” and to the beautiful orchid farm in Soroa.  On our way to Viñales we stopped at a tobacco farm to see how they dried, prepared and twisted the famous Cuban tobacco leaves. Later in the semester, we will follow up this trip with a visit to the world renowned Partagás tobacco factory where some of the world’s best cigars are put together, packaged, and sold. We have also made a stop at the Hemingway House, where the American novelist lived for many years and where he composed some of his greatest works.  Inside Habana, we have travelled to the top of the Martí Tower, some 300 feet, to see a majestic view of the city.  We have also seen a great deal of Old Habana, the “malecón,” the Plaza de Armas,” and, of course, the beautiful University of Habana campus. 

All the students have begun work on their semester long projects.  These include in depth studies of the Cuban banking system, the role of the Catholic Church in a socialist society, and the obstacles faced by theater producers during this regime.   Students are also participating in a Round Table class in which invited speakers talk on various topics each week.  So far we have had the opportunity to speak with university professors, a priest, and a young woman studying to become a “santera.” In the centerpiece of the curriculum is the course dealing with US /Cuban relations taught by the Cuban professor, Raúl Rodríguez.  There the students are quickly learning about the historical events that brought the USA and Cuba to their contemporary standoff.  The culminating parts of this fascinating class will be two carefully orchestrated visits to the Museum of the Revolution and to the Bay of Pigs in April.

We have a full schedule for the rest of the semester.  This weekend we are headed to Santa Clara to see the Che Guevara Museum and the picturesque city.  Later we will make trips to Trinidad, the Bay of Pigs, and other cities.  We also hope to find time in our busy class schedule for a brief offshore trip in a fishing boat, a visit to the birthplace of José Martí, Cuba’s national hero, and maybe a baseball game or two.

Michael Schnepf

Dr. Schnepf- Final Director’s Report

The 2010 version of Alabama-in-Cuba continues at an exciting pace. The nine students have finished their major projects (topics ranged from political billboards to dietary issues to the Jewish community in Havana) and are now finalizing papers and talks.

The classroom work has been balanced by a steady stream of excursions to various parts of the island. To the East we have traveled as far as Viñales and to the West we have made the long trip to Trinidad. Within those parameters we have also visited Santa Clara, Playa Girón, Soroa, Varadero, Santa María, Cojímar, and Guanabacoa. With respect to Havana, we have witnessed the ¨cañonazo¨, the book fair, the birthplace of Martí, the Martí Tower, various Santería venues, Havana Vieja, the national library, movies, the Hemingway House, the rum factory, the Partagás Tobaco Factory, a photo exhibition, and, of course, the famous Coppelia Icecream Shop. We also were able to take an exciting three-hour boat trip up and down the northern coast of Cuba that provided us with a unique and privileged view of Havana and the famous Morro Fort.


Life at the Montehabana aparthotel has been a curious up and down ride. We have experienced short blackouts, trouble with plumbing, and lack of hot water, but the staff, from top to bottom, has been exceedingly polite and accommodating during the entire time. Many of us have made a lot of friends here at Montehabana with whom we can talk about baseball, politics, and life in general. Come May 10, I am sure that everyone will miss these Cuban ¨amigos.¨


Students, of course, need to relax, to play sports, and to get away a bit from the daily academic grind. During our stay here we have the opportunity to spend time at the three splendid beaches: Santa María, Punta Perdiz, and Varadero. All three trips were made with bright Cuban sunshine (the Varadero sun was somewhat shy) and enjoyed in the beautiful greenish blue waters of the Caribbean. At Punta Perdiz the students had the added experience of eating crocodile for the first time. But the nine participants have also had the chance to play a lot of basketball against Cuban opponents, to swim in the nearby Occidental pool, to play tennis, to walk along Fifth Avenue, to run through the adjacent streets, and to participate along with Cuban friends in aerobic sessions offered in a building just behind the Montehabana.


One of the primary goals of this trip has always been to improve the linguistic skills of the participants. As we near the end of our trip much of what we do is in Spanish. The director frequently receives telephone calls from students in the target language; classes are all in Spanish; and students frequently speak ¨Cuban¨ among themselves. Students also have attended lectures, movies, concerts and other activities where the target language is an absolute must! Finally, the two diagnostic tests administered by the director (one at the beginning of the semester and one just recently) indicate a marked increase in linguistic ability and confidence with all nine students!


We still have a week and a half to go and many fun activities still on the schedule (the May Day Parade and the final supper are just two) but I think we can all say at this point that the trip has been a very good one, full of hard work, travel, new experiences and many, many new friends here in Cuba.

Director’s Report – Dr. Michael Schnepf

The second year of the University of Alabama´s Semester program in Cuba began on Jan. 30 when nine students and one director left Tuscaloosa headed for Havana, Cuba. Now, after almost seven weeks on the island, all aspects of the program are progressing extremely well.

The nine students have four academic classes: two (conversation and Habana culture) at the University of Habana and two others (US/Cuba Relations and the speaker-based round table) at the nearby Núñez Foundation. The students travel to the downtown campus on the local ´guagua´(bus) that drops them approximately 7 blocks from the campus. The cost for this trip is less than one quarter.

The entire group is housed in the Montehabana, called an apart-hotel because it has qualities of both hotel and apartment. Open-aired and located in the Miramar district, the Montehabana offers a tranquil setting somewhat apart from the hustle and bustle of Habana. Students have access to a variety of small markets and shops as well as a farmers market not far down the road where they can purchase tomatoes, pineapples, lettuce, frijoles, green peppers, and much more.


When not in class the group is often on the road. In the first month alone they have travelled outside of Habana to Viñales, Trinidad, Soroa, the Hemingway House, Cojímar, and the Bay of Pigs. Within the limits of city they have already visited Habana Vieja, the Martí Tower, the Partagás Tobacco Factory, an Industriales baseball game, the Cannon Shot Ceremony, and the International Book Fair (Russia is this year´s invited country). Other projected excursions include Santa Clara and the Che Guevara Museum, The Bay of Pigs, and the two Bellas Artes Museums in Habana. Towards the end of March, the group will make a three-day trip to the extreme western side of the island, to Santiago de Cuba (quite near the Guantánamo Prison).


The day-long trip to the Bay of Pigs (Playa Girón)on March 16 was especially educational since our Cuban professor, Raúl Rodríguez, accompanied us to the two museums. He offered views of what transpired during this invasion that differed significantly from what is taught in US schools and universities. The students had a multitude of questions for Raúl at the end of the session.


The students are also mixing in quite well with their Cuban counterparts. Basketball games pitting Cubans against the Americans are common and the entire group has met and visited with the large Cuban family of Elaina Tirador. Dance lessons—salsa and more—are a common sight.


Based on several factors, the program is going quite well: students are speaking more and more Spanish; their linguistic comprehension level is improving daily; they are being exposed to new and different views of the long-standing battle between the USA and Cuba; and they are travelling to parts of Cuba that not many Americans have the opportunity to see.