The Christian Science Monitor
US Students Find Cuba More Than a Textbook Experience

David Abel
Special to The Christian Science Monitor

                                                                                   HAVANA, CUBA

Moments before the entourage of Mercedeses rolled into the University of Havana, someone ran into Cat Linenberger's
classroom shouting, "Fidel! Fidel!" A burst of applause rang from the gathering crowd. Ms. Linenberger, an American
exchange student, wasn't sure what was happening. Then she saw a bearded man in a military uniform emerge from one of the
tinted-window sedans. Instantly, she recognized him as Cuban President Fidel Castro.

"I was so close I could have dropped my textbook on his head," says Linenberger. "People were going nuts for him. This
definitely wasn't in our syllabus."

A first-hand account

Linenberger, a student at New Orleans's Tulane University, is one of more than 100 Americans studying this year in Cuba
thanks to a recently amended law.

A 36-year-old US embargo prohibits Americans from traveling to Cuba without a license. But since the law was amended in
October 1995 to allow foreign-exchange programs between Cuba and the US - as of yet no Cuban students study at US
universities - more than a dozen American schools have arranged Cuba programs, according to Beth Weaver, a spokeswoman
for the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control.

"By nature, this kind of program is controversial," says Nick Robins, program director for Tulane University. "This gives
students a first-hand account. By being here they can make their own impressions and get beyond the rhetoric on both sides of
the Florida Straits."

The controversy nearly prevented Diane Steffan, a student at the State University of New York at Buffalo, from enrolling in the
program. Ms. Steffan's Cuban-born mother was dead set against her daughter spending dollars in a country ruled by a regime
that forced her to leave.

"She was like, 'No way,' " says Steffan. "Then she eased up. And eventually she got excited for me to bring back memories."

Enduring tensions have also made studying here different from study in other countries. Buffalo students are often accompanied
by a Cuban Interior Ministry official, whom they call "the spy."

"It's just a way for them to keep an eye on us," says José Buscaglia, an architecture and history professor. "I guess they think
some of the students might be working for the CIA."

Though students may be monitored, they're able get beyond the official Cuban version of history and the propaganda plastered
on walls and billboards.

Experience taught Mike Milch, a politics major at New York University, about the surge in petty crime since the Cuban
economy nose-dived in the early 1990s. His 10-speed bicycle was stolen on his second day in Havana. But what he found
particularly difficult to brush aside was the hustling. "Everywhere you go, someone's trying to sell you something. They treat you
like you're a walking dollar," Mr. Milch says.

The desire for cash is one of the main reasons Cuba has been eager to accept Americans and why the US has been reluctant to
let them go, says Jerry Poyo, a history professor here from St. Mary's University in San Antonio. Travel licenses bar students
and professors from spending more than $100 a day in Cuba.

Moving beyond the conflict

"This is not about spending or not spending money," says Professor Poyo, while students haggled with a vendor on the Plaza de
Armas. "It's about interaction, learning, and getting beyond the conflict people always read about."

Sipping bottled water on the stoop of one of the University of Havana's many dilapidated buildings, Nicolle Ugarriza of Miami
Beach wasn't sure how she would react if she encountered Castro. Her family wouldn't be thrilled, she says.

"At home everyone has a programmed reaction," Ms. Ugarriza says. "But underneath that there is a tremendous curiosity. I've
heard about Cuba forever. So it was time for me to experience it myself."