Daniel Garcia Marco
HAVANA TIMES (DPA) — They marvel at the variety of fruits available at the market and the speed of Internet, and they already feel right at home. They are the 17 Cuban scholarship students who arrived this past January in Miami, where they will spend six months learning English, marketing and computer science.
This is the first time Cuban students travel to the United States as part of joint scholarship program. The United States broke diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961, two years after the triumph of Fidel Castro’s revolution on the island.
The students have taken advantage of a migratory reform that came into effect in Cuban in January of 2013 and did away with the permit formerly required of all travelers. The government never asked them the reasons for their trip.
Miami Dade College opened its academic doors to them, but the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (FDH) was the institution responsible for making the first selection of scholarship recipients.
Their ages range from 18 to 37 and they come from different backgrounds. All, however, have one thing in common: to a greater or lesser extent, all have ties to dissidents and are critical of Raul Castro’s government, something which has resulted in the expulsion of some from a university that boasts of being “only for revolutionaries.”
“Not all of us are publicly critical of the government, but the mere fact of receiving a scholarship sponsored by Cubans who are openly critical and of speaking about freedom already makes us subject to monitoring,” 31-year-old Henri Constantin told DPA on January 31, when all the 17 students had already arrived in Miami.
That same day, the students denounced the Cuban government’s repression of dissidents during the recent Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) held in Havana.
“Most don’t have political ties, but they’ve been expelled from university for thinking freely,” FDH spokeswoman Mariana Hernandez told DPA. The FDH was created in Miami 22 years ago by the late Jorge Mas Canosa, a renowned anti-Castro businessman.
When asked where the non-government organization obtained its funding, Hernandez spoke of fundraisers. All calculations, however, must not neglect to add the 3.4 million dollars Washington has allotted for Cuba civil society organizations over a three-year period, or so reports the Miami Herald, which insists the FDH will pay the 12,000 or 15,000 dollars required to cover the transportation, lodging and living expenses of each student.
“It’s fair that the victims of the misguided Fidealista maxim of ‘university is for revolutionaries only’ should have the opportunity to study in Miami,” University of Denver Cuban-American expert Arturo Lopez-Levy said in defense of the scholarship program.
Lopez-Levy, however, criticized the US government for aligning itself with the traditional Cuban émigré community. “What could have been an educational exchange on a non-partisan basis, perhaps the bridge to new horizons, has started out badly by turning an opportunity offered Cuban students in the United States into another instrument of the externally-imposed regime change policy.”
Berta Soler, leader of the dissident Ladies in White movement, visited the students, which includes her children Lienys and Luis Moya, on February 5.
Constantin wishes to see a program like the one he is enjoying offered to apolitical students and even individuals who sympathize with the Cuban government: “It would be a way of saying to them that university is not for revolutionaries only, that it’s for everyone.”
Despite Cuba’s official perception, the 17 scholarship students do not see Miami as an enemy. “We Cubans don’t feel like foreigners in Miami. Wherever we go, we see prosperous and successful Cubans,” Constantin said.
“There’s everything you can’t find in Cuba,” underscored Eleanor Calvo, another grateful scholarship recipient, the leader of Cuba’s Observatorio Ciudadano Contra la Discriminacion (Citizen Observatory Against Discrimination), an unofficial Havana-based group that combats racism.
The 17 scholarship students are committed to returning to Cuba following the six-month program. “We want to acquire knowledge and use it in our daily lives, for the betterment of our country,” Calvo said.
“I’ll go back to Cuba on a raft if I have to,” 30-year-old Danilo Madonado, a renowned Cuban graffiti artist, said. Maldonado is enjoying the freedom afforded him in Miami and the numerous spray-painted walls of the neighborhood of Wynwood, the center of alternative cultural life in Miami.
“It’s going to be traumatic for everyone to return to the kind of monitoring that they are already subjecting our homes to. We won’t be treading on a bed of roses when we go back,” Constantin ventured to say.