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Our Man in Havana

Off The Cuff with Michael Martin

Apr. 22, 2014
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By day Michael Martin is senior community planning and development representative with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but he moonlights as adjunct professor of urban planning and lecturer at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at UW-Milwaukee. For the last two years he has led small groups of students on a trip to Havana, Cuba. The three-credit study abroad trip is designed to expose students to issues of historical preservation, community development and sustainable developments—more specifically, urban gardens. He first visited Havana in 2003 and led UWM trips in 2013 and earlier this year.  He is also a great fan of Cuban jazz. That conversation will have to wait for another day.


How did your preconceptions during your first visit match with what you experienced?

My wife and I took a junket from Cancún to Havana in 2003 because we really wanted to see the city. What most intrigued me is how people will say, “Havana is frozen in time.” It is a thriving place. There were commerce issues—no signage, no billboards—yet political sloganeering all over the place. It was exotic and unique.


Was it tourist friendly?

No less tourist friendly than many other cities in Latin America. What is important to remember is we look at Cuba very differently due to political reasons. Travel bans, communism and the idea that there is no trade between our countries—we’ve been so isolated due to the Cold War. We are the only country on Earth that treats Cuba this way. So there are European and Canadian tourists all over the place, people from the Bahamas and Jamaica. What is interesting is your perception of a place is due to the political propaganda that has been thrown at you your whole life, and what it really is. They are just people.


We often hear that cliché, “Cuba is frozen in time.”

The idea of consumerism, for the average person, is really difficult. I had a student who broke his glasses when we were there. He kept telling me, “All I need is some Super Glue.” We scoured the town and finally found a place that was an eyeglass factory and got some there. It’s not like you can go out and buy Super Glue.


What changes have you seen over the course of your trips?

The economic reforms that are going on there are real. There are about 180 jobs that have been now deemed OK for the private sector that previously had to go through the state. A lot of this is service industry, construction or tourist infrastructure. People are putting their entrepreneurial hats on and figuring out ways to do stuff. There is money in Cuba. When the Russians pulled out, oil became difficult to get in the early 1990s. Transportation was difficult. There was no money to get food into the city. Urban gardening has started and we really looked at trying to do a Will Allen-type sustainable growth model.


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