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Trips to Cuba, Bosnia capture cultures in transition

Rev. Kevin Crawford 14T, program coordinator for the Office of the University Chaplain, walks along the streets of Old Havana during the recent Journeys trip to Cuba. Photo by Sarah Loftus.

Since U.S. policies toward Cuba began shifting, much has been changing for the island nation — U.S. diplomatic relations have been restored, trade is growing, and travel restrictions have softened, making it easier for Americans to visit than it has been in decades.

For a group of Emory students and scholars, it’s also created a unique classroom — a chance to study Cuba in a new era of transition.

Before last month, rising Emory junior Sarah Loftus 16Ox 18C had never traveled outside of the U.S. "But as a sociology major I was always interested in other cultures and comparing different societies,” she acknowledges.

She found that opportunity through Emory’s Journeys of Reconciliation program, an immersive learning experience that would plunge her deep within the cultural, political, racial and economic intricacies of life in Cuba.

Offered through the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life, the program invites Emory students, staff, faculty and alumni to examine root causes of conflict in locations around the globe and consider how individuals and groups are contributing to peace-building.

For Loftus, “Cuba was especially good for that, because of its political and social circumstances,” she said. “I was excited to see this transition phase.”

This year’s Cuba excursion was co-led by Sarah’s mother, Mary Loftus, Emory Medicine magazine editor, and Emory alumna Natasha Marcus, who previously served as a cultural ambassador for the Spanish Ministry of Education.

Joining them on the 10-day trip were Emory College students Christina Crawford, Emanuel Castro, Jonathan Liang and Justine Zimmerman; alumna Christina Marcus 16T; Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science and director of Emory’s James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference; Carlton Mackey, director of the Ethics and the Arts Program in the Emory Center for Ethics; and Kevin Crawford, program coordinator for the Office of the University Chaplain.

Changing face of Cuba

This marks the third trip to Cuba for the Journeys program, which has focused on historical tensions between the U.S. and Cuba, the nation’s religious diversity, people, culture and the role of religion in social change.

Three years ago, Mary Loftus and her son, Adam Loftus 12Ox 15C, joined a Journeys trip to Cuba at a time when many U.S. sanctions against trade and tourism were still in place.

Returning last month offered a very different snapshot — a country and a culture stirring with change, says Mary Loftus.

Although some things were as she remembered — a vibrant music and arts scene, spotty power outages, aging cars, and colorful, sometimes crumbling, architecture — there were also signs of an economic shift.

Cuba has long been an active tourist destination for other countries. But an easing of restrictions on U.S. visitors has fed a tourism boom, including a surge in the construction of new hotels. Cruise ships are docking in Havana and reservations at good hotels are often booked a year in advance, Loftus reports. But along with the flood of visitors have come fears of running out of supplies as basic as bottled water.

“We talked with an economist, a professor there, who was worried that Cuba is going to become a nation of taxi drivers and mojito makers, which the students were sad to hear,” says Loftus, who chronicled her first experience with the Journeys trip to Cuba for Emory Magazine.

“People go there seeking the grandeur of old Cuba, but the hotels being built are new and modern and minimal,” she says. “It does look like tourism is shaping Cuba now, but they are struggling to figure out how to control it."

The chance to talk with everyone from people on the street to university scholars and government officials provided a wealth of perspectives. Though Cuba still calls itself a third-world country and describes a government rooted in socialism not communism, Loftus believes neither statement is true.

“What’s clear is that there is the government and there is the political party,” she says. “It felt like everyone was holding their breath to see what will happen next.”

Historic Havana

While the program aspires to treat everyone as if they are both teachers and students, Loftus says Emory faculty members proved an invaluable resource.

“Dr. Gillespie was able to weigh in on complex political issues,” she notes. “She encouraged students to keep their skepticism and think critically about what they were hearing. And Carlton and Kevin both helped keep the students engaged and energized.”

With Havana as a home base, participants toured the historic government buildings, churches, plazas and markets of Old Havana, visited with Afro-Cuban artists and musicians, observed a Shabbat dinner with a local Jewish community, and visited the Bay of Pigs, as well as historic battle sites and a museum documenting slavery.

For artist and ethicist Carlton Mackey, a photographer who operates the multi-media project “50 Shades of Black” which explores the spectrum of race and identity, the experience helped “awaken those parts of me that long to be inspired as an artist and didn’t go to sleep the whole time I was there,” he says.

“The journey gave me deeper insight, a new perspective, a deeper appreciation for complexity and a deeper sense of connectivity between my experience as a descendent of Africans who were enslaved in North America and those enslaved in other parts of the world,” he says.

More than one million Africans were enslaved in Cuba, and by some estimates, as much as 60 percent of the Cuban population is descended from them, explains Mackey, who has participated in previous Journeys trips to Jordan-Palestine-Israel and South Africa.

“To see and meet those people gave me a shared sense of struggle and enterprise and triumph,” he says. “It also gave me the ability to not take for granted that the way we see ourselves is not necessarily the way that we are seen by the rest of the world.”

Bosnia: Healing the wounds of war

At the same time Emory students and scholars were heading to Cuba, Lisa Garvin, associate dean of the Chapel and Religious Life, was leading a Journeys trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This marked the third time Emory has led a Journeys exploration into the region and the first visit in a decade. Like Cuba, it provided a glimpse of a country and culture in transition.

“We went to Bosnia because the history of conflict there has a religious dynamic to it,” explains Garvin. “It’s a place where ethnic and religious identity is so closely intertwined.”

“Primarily we examined the history that informed the violent and tragic conflicts of the early 1990s and the Dayton Peace Accords, which ended the war, and how nation-building and peace are playing out,” she says.

Emory participants included Thomas Lancaster, professor of political science; Hank Klibanoff, James M. Cox Jr. Professor of Journalism; and Joe Moon, dean for Campus Life at Oxford College, among others.

With stops in more than half-a dozen cities — including Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Mostar and Dubrovnik — the group met with academic scholars and religious leaders, local residents and human rights advocates, with visits to historic sites, universities, museums, and both a mosque and an Orthodox church.

Surrounding them were signs of a war-torn nation still struggling to recover.

“One of the things we heard repeatedly was that the peace agreement had ended the war, but not the conflict,” says Garvin. “I was surprised at how intractable the political situation still seems, and how complicated the tensions and the conflict are.”

“It’s a beautiful country, but the complexity of the systems at work there continues to strike you in new and profound ways. Talking with people who lived through a war — some who left and came back out of their deep commitment to the country and others who stayed to face the challenges of living in the war zone — demonstrates the resilience of humanity.”

Though the name of the program, “Journeys of Reconciliation” might imply that “we’re going in to reconcile something, what we’re really doing is trying to learn from people doing the daily work of reconciliation,” Garvin explains.

Learn more about the Journeys program and to read about other destinations.

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