Cuban academics to visit campus


The University of Havana

Two Cuban academics will visit JSC Oct. 1-3 as a step forward in what is hoped to be a deepening relationship with the Communist island nation that remains subject to stringent trade sanctions by the United States.


Funded by the Ellsworth Trust, Cuban economist Rafael Betancourt and his wife, Dr. Consuelo Martin Fernandez, a psychologist and migration specialist, will visit a variety of different classrooms to share their expertise on subjects ranging from sustainable tourism and social and solidarity economics, to psychology and ageing through a Cuban perspective.


JSC’s connection with Betancourt and Fernandez began in June 2017 when Professor of Business and Economics Todd Comen participated in a sustainable tourism workshop that Betancourt helped organize in Pinar del Rio, Cuba.


Betancourt works as a professor of urban economics at the University of Havana alongside Fernandez, who is a fully tenured professor of psychology at the same university.


After hearing that the couple was visiting New York City and Washington, D.C., in September, Comen saw an opportunity to invite them to the college to share their studies and experiences of Cuban culture. “Rafael will bring a whole different perspective on everything from daily living to economics and how one might see the world,” said Comen.


“Because he’s lived through a whole different mental model,” he added, “he can elucidate what the Cuban people have been through and what it’s like to live there in Cuba.”


JSC’s own ties to Cuba date back to 1994 when acclaimed artist Salvador Gonzales Escalona visited JSC for three days to educate students on Afro-Cuban culture through a series of workshops.


Since Escalona’s visit, four trips have landed JSC students and faculty on Cuban soil, the first being a small 2002 trip of only six students. The next three in, 2012, 2014 and 2016 ran as the interdisciplinary travel course Art and Culture of Cuba [INT3050], which has been taught thus far by Professor of Fine Arts Ken Leslie and Associate Professor of Writing and Literature Tyrone Shaw. The course is set to run again in February 2018.


After several years of trying to establish connections with Cuba’s premier grades 9-12 art school, the Academy San Alejandro, Leslie was able to teach a bookmaking workshop there during his and Shaw’s last trip in February 2016 to the country. In 2014, JSC donated over 50 art books to the Academy’s library, books that were obtained at a number of library book sales according to Shaw.


Betancourt and Fernandez’s visit comes at an “auspicious” time, Shaw says, pointing to JSC’s recent entry into the international student exchange program as a springboard for expanding JSC’s academic relationship with Cuba—specifically with the University of Havana as a potential link.


Before Burlington College closed its doors in May 2016, it offered a semester-long program that allowed students to study at the University of Havana.


Shaw says Betancourt and Fernandez’s visit offers JSC a chance to develop a relationship with their university as Burlington College once had. “We would like to be able to resume Burlington College’s program under the NVU umbrella,” said Shaw.


“Nothing has been accomplished yet in this, except the concept of it; this is aspirational,” he continued. “We would like to see things evolve to the point where we can offer what Burlington College offered, that students from NVU will have the option of studying at the University of Havana for a semester.”


The visit also coincides with JSC’s transition and expansion into Northern Vermont University (NVU-Johnson and Lyndon) in 2018, and its commitment to broadening its global perspectives through its new vision and mission statements.


Of the perspectives Betancourt and Fernandez could offer NVU students from their university, Shaw and Comen have identified several programs for exploration that fit existing JSC concentrations: Cuba’s green medicine industry corresponds with JSC’s wellness and alternative medicine program; a combined music program featuring Afro-Cuban studies could be explored and the aforementioned sustainable tourism concentration could work within Comen’s current hospitality and hotel management program.
“There’s so much that we could do with so many disciplines,” Shaw said. “And what about political science? It’s a living laboratory down there.”


Betancourt and Fernandez’s visit, according to Comen and Shaw, is significant in the knowledge they will share and the connections to the University of Havana they could provide for a sustained and coherent academic relationship for NVU.


“I think it’s just a great opportunity for us to build relationships with people from a different country and with a different perspective from a different background,” said Comen of the two Cuban academics. “Bringing that to Northern Vermont University is very cool because we’re so isolated here. We’re bringing a different perspective from the global South. This makes us a little more distinct perhaps from other liberal arts colleges, so it doesn’t hurt to have that, either.”


As part of their early October visit Betancourt and Fernandez will begin a series of joint and solo classroom presentations on Monday, Oct. 2, with “Tourism Revs Up in Cuba,” followed by a meeting with Leslie and Shaw on their February Art and Culture study trip in Cuba. Betancourt will resume on Tuesday with presentations in macroeconomics and the principles of marketing, while Fernandez will present in both Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Leslie Johnson and Professor of Psychology Dr. Gina Mireault’s courses. After a meeting with the Basement Medicine newspaper staff Betancourt and Fernandez will rejoin for a public presentation in the Stearns Performance Space or Cinema at 6:30 p.m. on the “limits of reform.” This will be followed by a dinner in the Doyle Dining room in Stearns.


Before departing from Vermont, Betancourt and Fernandez will visit Lyndon State College on Wednesday morning. Overall, Comen says he expects their visit to be mutually beneficial with hope for a lasting relationship.


“It’ll be a different framework for looking at the world,” said Comen. “They’re coming from a totally communist country. They’re coming from a planned economy and a country living in deep poverty because of the U.S. [trade] embargo. “I just know Betancourt’s a really gregarious guy and he thinks a lot about economics. He’s obviously an accomplished economist, so I’m sure he’s thought about different ways of seeing the world.”