Rutland Herald 
Burlington College continues to expand its ties to Cuba, adding one-week, credit-earning workshops in education, the Cuban legal system, photography and sustainable economics.
The small liberal arts college began its relationship with Cuba and the University of Havana seven years ago with a spring semester-abroad program.
Students take 16 credits in Cuban studies, cinema studies, Spanish and one or two elective courses.
Burlington College President Christine Plunkett said after making two trips to Cuba she began thinking of ways to expand the school’s relationship to the island nation of 11 million inhabitants.
“There has to be a way to open this up to some shorter programs in some specific areas,” she said. “There are so many ways Cuba and the U.S. have different ways of looking at things that could be helpful.”
Two areas of interest are education and law. Last year, Burlington College, in partnership with the Institute for the Study of Jose Marti, sponsored a week-long workshop for 15 teachers, including Cuba-born Armando Vilaseca, secretary of the state’s Agency of Education.
In October, another workshop was arranged for 20 lawyers. Both workshops earned participants either graduate degree credits or continuing legal education credits.
Critics of travel to Cuba say spending dollars there only helps to prop up the Castro dictatorship. But Vilaseca argues that the 50-year old U.S. embargo is a relic of the Cold War and only serves the purposes of extremists in both countries.
By contrast, he said, programs like the one at Burlington College can help break down barriers through people-to-people contact.
“I think that is an invaluable opportunity for the Cubans to meet U.S. citizens in real life and see we’re not demons,” said Vilaseca, who serves on the college’s board of trustees.
In January, a dozen Burlington College students attended a week-long seminar on street photography. One of the college’s degree areas is fine arts, which includes photography, cinema studies/film production, and woodworking/fine furniture making.
Last month, a second group of 10 teachers attended a workshop in Havana.
More one-week seminars are planned.
In April, a graduate level workshop is scheduled on sustainable economics, which looks at Cuba’s attempt to adapt new business models, including cooperatives, small-scale private enterprise and joint ventures between individuals and the state.
That will be followed by a yet-to-be-determined mid-June seminar.
Plunkett said the overarching goal is an exchange of ideas and learning “from one another.”
“This can’t be about the U.S. marching into Cuba and saying ‘here’s how you do things the right way,’” she said.
Cuba and the U.S. have had an acrimonious relationship since Fidel Castro seized control of the country in 1959 and installed a communist dictatorship.
Relations between the two countries hit another low in 2009 when Alan Gross, a U.S. foreign aid worker, was arrested for setting up Internet connections for the island’s Jewish community. After a two-day trial, Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for undermining the Cuban regime.
Plunkett is well aware of the strained relations between the two countries. She said for the college it’s necessary to stay above the fray.
“We’re an educational institution, we’re not a political entity,” she said. “We’re not trying to get engaged in politics or pressure.”