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A group at UTPA travels to Cuba to reach out far beyond their community
Contact: Amanda Perez, Intern 381-2741
Posted: 03/25/2010
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Cuba, a country in turmoil after four major hurricanes and with a government in transition, has received humanitarian aid from a group of students, faculty and staff from The University of Texas-Pan American.

Dr. Jessica Lavariega-Monforti, assistant professor of political science, led a humanitarian trip to Cuba Dec. 26-Jan. 5, 2010. According to Lavariega-Monforti, a team of seven, consisting of four students, one faculty and staff member and herself, became the first group from UTPA to travel under a humanitarian license to provide relief efforts to another country.

UTPA students Raul Rodriguez, Anne Hause, Mayra Gallegos, and Tony Gonzalez are pictured in front of the Museo de Bellas Artes in Havana while on their trip to Cuba.
Prior to their trip, donation drives were held in order to collect primarily medical and educational materials for Cuba. Student organizations, such as Golden Key International Honour Society and Students for Peace, assisted in collecting goods. A San Carlos elementary teacher who has ties in Cuba became aware of the efforts and organized a massive drive in her school as well.

Trip goers, Ann Hause, senior biology major and Tony Gonzalez, junior anthropology major, were glad to see the amount of involvement from students and the community.

"We were so lucky to have such an abundance of donations for this trip," Hause said. "The amount of donations far exceeded the amount we were allowed to carry to Cuba."

The group collected everything from Tylenol, adult diapers, lotions and soaps to pens, pencils, notebooks, books, crayons, paints. All items were transported and delivered to Cuban citizens in need.

"We appreciate all those who contributed," Gonzalez said. "The donations I found out went to the center for the physically disabled and to the surrounding Havana community children."

In addition to humanitarian efforts, the trip served educational purposes as well. Lavariega-Monforti said she wanted to expose students to a government in transition and, despite the contradictory material written on Cuba, allow them to formulate their own opinions based on their experiences.

"I wanted to know for myself firsthand what was in Cuba, who the Cubans are and how their government works," Gonzalez said. "Overall, the firsthand glimpse has helped me form my own opinions and perspectives and I found we can learn a lot from Cuba."

While in Cuba on a humanitarian and educational trip late last year, UTPA students were able to capture a view of some street musicians in the Plaza de la Catedral in Havana.
Hause believes that getting to interact with the people of Cuba was a great opportunity.

"It was fascinating to learn the Cuban perspective on U.S-Cuba relations," Hause said. "Given the opportunity to discuss politics with Cuban locals altered my view of our relationship with Cuba. They want so much what we all want: to see one's country grow and prosper."

Lavariega-Monforti was aiming for an educational experience for the students and said that goal was certainly achieved.

"As the students learned and heard more from sources in Cuba, they formed questions and were able to compare and contrast information," Lavariega-Monforti said. "I didn't want students to just rely on what they read, but to use their analytical thinking skills. I feel that was definitely achieved."

While in Cuba the group stayed in Havana and traveled to Havana Vieja, a historical area that is undergoing major renovations, the province of Pinar Del Rio and the tourist center of Vedado. Seeing different places, such as facilities for the mentally and physically handicapped and enrichment of the arts for children, and witnessing different living conditions gave students a different outlook on life.

"We got to see a completely different side to Cuba," Hause said. "Most of the Cubans living conditions are drastically different from our own, which made it difficult for me to understand."

"Despite the shortcomings of living conditions and many of the facilities in need of repair, everyone was very friendly and hospitable," Gonzalez said.

Students agreed that this was an invaluable learning experience and was a great opportunity to provide humanitarian aid.

"I would encourage anyone to take a trip to Cuba," Hause said. "They have such a colorful history and a different approach to governing that there is something for everyone to learn."

"I want to thank Dr. Lavariega-Monforti for initiating the trip and UTPA for sponsoring it," Gonzalez said. "It was an opportunity that was unique and rare."