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 Jos 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."