A Lovely Country

Once isolated from the United States by politics and ideology, Cuba is opening again.

A group of 19 Southern Safari participants spent eight days visiting the island nation during the summer. The trip was organized by the Missouri Southern Institute of International Studies.

The group landed in Havana and immediately was swept up in the beautiful colors, bright lights and island architecture of Cuba. The travelers visited a school, a senior center, a medical clinic, a farmers’ market, a community art project, an Afro-Cuban cultural center and an artist’s studio, as well as the finca (ranch) of the late Ernest Hemingway near Havana.

In addition to the capital city, participants took a group trip to the scenic rural Vinales valley west of the nation’s capital to see life in rural Cuba, where sugar cane and tobacco ripen to maturity.

Dr. David Locher, a sociology professor who served as trip director, said Cuba has undergone countless changes since his last journey there 15 years ago.

“Cubans now are allowed to earn money on their own in ways they were not several years ago,” he said. “They can run restaurants out of their homes, use their cars as taxis and sell things they make. They’re frustrated because the changes they want to see coming aren’t coming fast enough.”

Most of the restrictions have been lifted on the travel routes of foreign tourists, he said. “There is really no place you are not allowed to go. There is no one who is afraid to talk to you. Cubans are very patriotic but also very open about what they don’t like and the problems they feel need to be fixed.”

Dr. Virginia “Gingy” Laas, a retired Missouri Southern professor who made the trip, said the beauty of the island is amazing. “The countryside is beautiful. It’s a lovely, lovely country,” she said.

She said Americans may find that, despite its welcome to American tourists, the Cuban people may not want to be overrun by the vast amount of merchandise and temptations from its neighbor to the north.

“Our whole long history with Cuba is not exactly good, from the Spanish American war to today,” Laas said. “How and in what ways Cuba will change is up to the Cubans.”