When Danilo Maldonado walks the halls of Miami Dade College he is struck by the amount of modern resources and technology available to the students. Here students seem to have a drive toward an achievable goal. It’s a contrast to his native Cuba where he says students are significantly limited in their academic and professional opportunities.
Maldonado is one of 17 native Cuban students studying at Wolfson Campus for one-semester. Their arrival this semester marked the first time in 55 years that Cubans have come to the United States in a formal study abroad program.
“On my part, I want to have more tools for my project to make it stronger… and to find life and solutions to bring this project to the next level as an artist, dissident, or activist,” said renowned activist and graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado when asked about what he hopes to take from this experience.
Maldonado’s figurative and symbolic art, splashed across Havana’s walls, is critical of the Castro regime. One of his bright spray-painted mixed-media works, posted on the the website Translatingcuba.com shows a swastika over the face of the Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The site wrote Maldonado “has gone through violent and arbitrary arrests, the seizure of his personal property, threats and other abuses.”
Each participant has a similar story of speaking out and as a result they have suffered. They say dissenting from the approved way of thinking about the leadership in Cuba or being a child of a dissident can result in expulsion from higher education.
Here Maldonado is struck by the variety of ideas and the number student organizations at MDC. In Cuba, students can only join the few state sanctioned organizations. They are limited in their studies and professional options.
The group’s classes at MDC are structured in mini-terms and they are taught collectively apart from the rest of the student body. This month, they will shift from learning exclusively English to courses like history, sociology, computing, psychology, and business among other subjects.
“The school told our professors that they need to teach us bilingually with some words in English and others in Spanish, but we asked our professor to talk to us in English, not in Spanish, because otherwise we would not learn and what we want is to learn,” said Haisa Alicia Fariñas, the 19-year-old daughter of Guillermo Fariñas, who is a popular Cuban dissident. “We also asked her to give us a test every week… in order to obligate us to study and learn more quickly.”
Fariñas is driven to learn here at MDC because she is exposed to new ideas. In Cuba, she says, the education is biased and, in her view, contorted to favor the ruling party.
During their stay, they are residing in a hotel in Brickell. They are split into different apartments with about four students in each. They take classes Mondays through Thursdays from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. with a break for lunch in between. On Fridays and the weekends they take the time for various organized activities, such as visiting other campuses, or free time. They travel around the city by car or the Metromover.
“For me this is a tremendous experience for a variety of reasons, but primarily because in Cuba I was no longer allowed to study because of my ideas and practices,” said blogger Henry Constantin, who was expelled by two Cuban universities during the past decade. “I want to continue to learn.”
Constantin has been on Twitter since June of 2011. That’s bold considering the human rights group Roots of Hope reports Internet access on the island is extremely limited, expression is monitored and criticism is punished.
The group of Cubans are diverse in race, age, and gender, ranging from 18 to 37. Over half of them are women. Some were students in Cuba. Others were not. Many have also been involved in political activism, whether by direct action or from familial ties.
Despite their differences, the students universally appreciate the opportunity they have received to escape the rigid structure they’re accustomed to back home and learn from a different perspective.
In 2013 Cuba removed a regulation that required its citizens to acquire exit permits from the government to travel abroad, which has allowed MDC to coordinate this program with the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, an organization that is paying for the students’ tuition, living expenses and other auxiliary costs.
At the conclusion of the semester, the program will end and the participants are expected to return home. Looking ahead, each one of them hopes to apply this experience differently. Constantin said if the Cuban government continues to allow students to study in the U.S., more will try to come study here as they have.
“This is a dream made into reality because I really thought they weren’t going to let us come,” Fariñas said.