STATE SPOTLIGHT: A Year of Cuba at Western Kentucky University

By Victoria Powell, 2019 Summer Intern

Unknown to many Kentucky residents, the state has a century-long connection to Cuba. The small town of Maceo, Kentucky was named in 1896 after Afro-Cuban hero Antonio Maceo Grajales, who died fighting in Cuba’s war of independence against Spain. The African-American population in the Kentucky town was inspired by this hero of Cuban independence. 

More than 120 years later, the state of Kentucky has continued to foster its relationship with Cuba. In 2017, U.S. representatives James Comer and Jon Yarmuth joined forces with Engage Cuba to form the Engage Cuba Kentucky State Council, comprised of dozens of prominent Kentucky government, agriculture, education, and business leaders seeking to advance pro-Cuba engagement policies that support Kentucky jobs and empower the Cuban people. 

Former Western Kentucky University professor Andrew McMichael is one of the members of the Engage Cuba Kentucky State Council. The university designated their 2018-2019 academic year the International Year of Cuba, a continuation of their “International Year of…” Program. For the past five years, the program has chosen a country to explore throughout the academic year through an interdisciplinary lens, scheduling events related to the country and its culture, as well as incorporating the country into course content. Prior to Cuba, the program highlighted Ecuador, South Africa, South Korea, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

According to Lauren Reyes, Coordinator for the WKU Office of International Programs, Cuba was chosen for the 2018-2019 year because many of the faculty have expertise in the country, and it is a neighboring country with a rich history enveloped in mystery and misconceptions. “We wanted to expand students’ horizons to see how much more complex [Cuba] is,” she said. 

The program, according to Reyes, was intentional about guiding past stereotypes, encouraging students to gain a more accurate perception of life on the island. For example, the program invited author Julia Cooke to discuss her book, “The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba," which explores young people’s daily lives in Cuba, imparting to the students a new outlook on their lives and those of their Cuban neighbors. Other events included a performance from Cuban hip-hop group Obsesión, who spoke about social activism in Cuba, and a film festival of Cuban cinema. 

WKU’s International Year of Cuba was an opportunity not only for the students to enrich their knowledge of the country, but also for the faculty to highlight their research regarding the island as well. The Year of Cuba events included seminars with WKU professors who have studied Cuba in a variety of disciplines such as sociology, theater and dance, paralegal studies, and even kinesiology. 

It appears as though the relationship between Western Kentucky University and Cuba will continue to flourish in the future. The “International Year Of…” program at the university has chosen to revisit all five of the past countries for the 2019-2020 academic year, giving a chance to emphasize the continued engagement that WKU has had with the previous countries, as well as spark new explorations.