Two summers ago, the United States and Cuba officially re-established diplomatic relations, raising flags over embassies in Washington, D.C., and Havana for the first time in decades.
This summer, Pitt-Bradford student Selena Benitez-Cuffee visited the new U.S. embassy in Havana and had a chance to talk with a foreign service officer there about his work - something she wants to pursue.
Her visit to the embassy and Havana was part of two programs led by the University of Pittsburgh - Revolutions and Rebellions and Pitt in Cuba.
The U.S. embassy in Havana had been closed since 1961, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower shut it down and severed diplomatic relations as tensions grew between the United States and communist Cuba.
When President Barack Obama normalized relations with the island nation in 2015, it gave Benitez-Cuffee the opportunity to travel to a place in which she had long been interested.
“My original desire to visit was because my grandfather used to tell me about when he would go to Cuba. He grew up in Puerto Rico and would go a lot.”
Later, as a triple major in business management, history-political science and international affairs, she became interested in the quintessence of Cold War international relations represented by the United States and Cuba.
“I've always had an interest in the Cuban-U.S. relationship, and it was interesting to see it from the Cuban perspective,” she said.
The programs gave her the long view of the country's history. Students visited historical plantations where slaves had raised sugar and tobacco. She learned about the island's economy, in which tobacco and Cuba's famous cigars continue to figure prominently.
“One of the things I got really interested in there was learning about their economy because they have two currencies - one for tourists and one for locals,” she explained. Some higher-ranking Cubans, however, also have access to the tourist currency.
One of the classes she took introduced her to the island's famously good health care and education systems. The island has zero illiteracy, and high school is free for all students who can pass the qualifying tests.
Doctors are free to see as well, she said, but medication - even over-the-counter items like ibuprofen - are scarce.
“There's not a lot of access to some things.”
That includes the many forms of media Americans are used to consuming. Benitez-Cuffee said that while televisions can get outside news from channels like CNN, not everyone has access to television or the internet. The Cuban government runs the country's newspapers.
“The most valuable part of the trip was getting to see Cuba for what it actually is instead of from someone else's impression,” she said. “I got to see heavy Cuban propaganda, and I got to see their take on foreign events.”
The Cuban people, she said, did not appear as beleaguered as she had thought before making the trip. “There is a lot of poverty, and there are a lot of things they don't have, but I saw how happy they are.”
As a Latina fluent in Spanish, she was often mistaken by Cubans to be one of them, and they spoke freely with her. While some want to leave the island, she said that most people she spoke with wanted change on the island. She said they were surprised to learn that many Americans also wish for change.
Despite the years of animosity between governments, “Most of the people in Cuba were excited about having Americans there.”
As a visitor, she praised the safety of Havana. “I felt the safest I've ever felt,” she said, “and my family has traveled a lot.” Only police hold guns on the island, and they are rarely used, she said.
Another highlight was Havana's meticulously maintained period automobiles, prevalent on the island because of years of a U.S. embargo that prevented residents from buying new cars.
“I love classic cars,” she said. “It was heaven.”
Benitez-Cuffee also had the chance to check out a couple of the island's famous white-sand beaches - one a destination for tourists, the other a favorite of locals.
Now home in Columbia, Md., she plans to spend the rest of the summer preparing to take the Law Student Admission Test - the next step on her path to discovering the world's cultures.