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Ike, Gustav give Cuban study abroad a stormy debut

Two hurricanes in two weeks have delayed classes for 11 Brown students studying abroad in Cuba, disrupting what Director of International Programs Kendall Brostuen called an otherwise "very smooth" start to the inaugural Brown-run program in the Caribbean nation.

On Sept. 8, the day classes were set to begin, Hurricane Ike swept across central Cuba, which delayed classes a week and forced the students to evacuate their residence in Havana for three days to a nearby hotel. Ike followed on the tail of Hurricane Gustav, which hit Cuba on­­­­ Aug. 30 - two days before the students arrived - and stoked fears that their travel plans could be disrupted.

Brown is one of only a handful of colleges with a special license from the U.S. government allowing students to study abroad in Cuba. Admission to the program's first run was competitive, Brostuen said. The semester-long program, known as Brown in Cuba, is in partnership with Casa de las Americas, a research institution affiliated with the University of Havana.

During Hurricane Ike, which narrowly missed making a direct hit on Havana, the students were moved to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba because, unlike the rest of the city, it had generators and running water during the storm, program participant Meredith Curtis '10 wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

"We were made very aware of how our treatment differs from that of normal Cubans," Curtis wrote. The students got "VIP treatment, like staying in one of the country's nicest hotels and watching cable television while most Havana residents were cooped up in small houses without gas to cook or running water during the storm."

"Hurricane Ike had the potential to be very, very destructive," Curtis added. Adrian Lopez-Denis, the program's on-site manager and a postdoctoral fellow at the Cogut Center for the Humanities, "prepared (students) for the worst," she added, and helped focus their attention on the threats that other Havana residents faced from the storm.

After returning to their residence near the research institute on Saturday, the group helped remove fallen brush in the town of Las Terrazas as part of relief efforts.

Now that the hurricanes have passed, the program will pick up as planned. Students will be taking four credit courses, all in Spanish, with professors contracted through Casa de las Americas and Lopez-Denis. Donata Secondo '10 wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that she was excited about the program because it places Brown and Cuban students together in the classroom, an arrangement she said was "unique" among the handful of study abroad programs currently operating in Cuba. The arrangement will "make for strong debate," she added, and their classes should "provide an intellectual space to engage with" what they've experienced so far in the country.

The courses students take as part of the program focus on Cuban culture and history.

"I applied to Brown in Cuba because I wanted to go somewhere I wouldn't have been able to on my own, and Cuba is definitely that," Curtis wrote.

Secondo was also attracted to the program because of the restrictions that usually preclude travel there. "What drew me to Cuba in the first place is how unknowable it is from the outside, especially from the United States," she wrote in her e-mail.

"As prepared as any of us felt we were, there was so much we simply couldn't imagine before getting here."

While in Cuba, the students will be witnessing preparations for the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, which Cubans will celebrate starting Dec. 27. The students "are living history right now" Brostuen said. "Cuba is at a very important crossroads. ... They are going to see the world through completely different eyes."

Being one of the few programs of its kind, and given the often-strained relations between the Cuban and American governments, Brown's students have encountered some unusual circumstances already. All 11 students and Lopez-Denis "were 'randomly' selected for extra security checks and segregated from other international flights," Curtis wrote.

They also can't use U.S.-based credit cards or cell phones, she said, and the Cuban government imposes a 10 percent tax on American dollars being converted to Cuban pesos.


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