Notes from Cuba: Catheryn Kightlinger

Berry senior studied in Havana last semester.

Sarah O’Carroll, Viking Fusion Reporter

Obama’s recent visit to Cuba, the first by a U.S. president since Calvin Coolidge in 1928, marked a new chapter in U.S. foreign relations. Berry, too, sent an ambassador to Cuba: senior Catheryn Kightlinger. 

The Spanish and psychology double major is the first Berry student to study in Cuba in the past decade. She studied at the University of Havana last fall. 

Kightlinger said that other than the occasional power or water outage, daily life in Cuba was not that different from her life back at home.  

“Sometimes we wouldn’t have hot water, or any water, and some days there wouldn’t be power, but it’s is not as underdeveloped as you would think,” she said.  

Cultural differences, however, abounded. For example, because there is limited freedom of speech in Cuba, there is virtually no public political expression, she said.  

“Day to day, it was not something you could talk about because you couldn’t criticize the government too openly,” Kightlinger said. Political conversations exclusively occur in the privacy of the home. 

Political views are “definitely expressed, but it’s something that happens around the dinner table, not in the middle of the streets,” she said.  

Moving back in time 

Getting used to a lower level of technological advancement was one of the biggest differences to get accustomed to, Kightlinger reported, because mobile telephony and the Internet – things Americans take for granted – are luxuries in Cuba. 

“You could only buy a cellphone as a Cuban starting in 2012, so it was kind of like stepping back in time,” she said. 

Using Internet costs $2 an hour, making schoolwork additionally challenging. Even with Internet connection, some sites and sources are firewalled by the Cuban government. Finding credible academic sources was an unexpected obstacle, she said. 

“What’s an acceptable academic source in Cuba is not an acceptable source here,” Kightlinger said. “Wikipedia is something I could cite in a term paper.” 

The primary way Cubans receive American media is through something called “The Packet,” a collection of American music, newspapers and TV shows stored and distributed via a USB flash drive, according to Kightlinger. The price, starting at a few dollars, would decrease as the week progressed. 

Beef is also a luxury product in Cuba, Kightlinger said, because of the heavy fines imposed on cow owners. 

“I think I had beef twice all semester, and I was the only American student I knew, besides my host sister, who was getting beef—ever,” she said. 

‘We’re not so dissimilar’ 

Kightlinger says that one of her takeaways from her semester abroad was learning not to judge too quickly.  

“I think Americans sometime think that Cuba is ‘other’ or different because we’ve been told certain things, and I think Cubans have heard other negative things about Americans,” Kightlinger said. “There’s this idea that we aren’t similar, but that’s not true.” 

She said that the baseball game that took place last Tuesday between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team in Havana was significant for that reason. 

“I think it was a way for each side to see the ‘other group’ as just people,” she said. “When you have people sitting around and cheering at a baseball game, you find this common humanity in a sport that is so loved by both nations.”

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