Reconnecting in Cuba: Paula Dobbyn 79F

by Paula Dobbyn 79F

Professor Margaret Cerullo, Paula Dobbyn, and Professor Carollee Bengelsdorf joined a contingent of Hampshire alums, parents, and friends during the Cuba Today trip in January 2015.

Professor Margaret Cerullo, Paula Dobbyn, and Professor Carollee Bengelsdorf joined a contingent of Hampshire alums, parents, and friends during the Cuba Today trip in January 2015.

I hadn’t seen Politics Professor Carollee Bengelsdorf since 1983, when I handed in my Division III, “Revolutionary Praxis and the Transition to Socialism: An Analysis of Allende’s Chile.” Fast-forward three decades, and there she stood at the Havana Air counter at Miami International Airport. It was January, and she was mingling with a Hampshire College group about to board a charter to Cuba.

Spotting her from the corner of my eye, I felt a jolt of anxiety. Do I owe her any anything? Have I handed in all my assignments?

I reminded myself that I had graduated. Carol, my main academic advisor, wrote me a positive evaluation. I was a veteran communicator and journalist. I was married. I had children.

This will be okay, I thought.

Carol saw me and headed over.

“My baby! Look at you! You’re the same! Well, okay, maybe a little wear and tear,” she said, dabbing at the crow’s feet around my eyes.

As she wrapped me in a bear hug, my stress evaporated.

I had studied political theory with Carol and with Sociology Professor Margaret Cerullo, now co-leaders of the January 8–15 Cuba Today trip. They were my idols. I wanted to be like them: brainy leftist intellectuals. My plan was to earn a doctorate in political theory. But in 1984, the year after graduating, I moved to Nicaragua, inspired by the Sandinista revolution I learned about in Carol’s and Margaret’s classes.

After a month in Managua volunteering on a school construction project, I found work as an English teacher, then as a radio reporter. Four years in Nicaragua passed quickly.

Before I knew it, I was well into a career in journalism and, later, nonprofit communications.

I never got to Cuba. I drifted to Alaska and lost touch with Carol and Margaret, except for the occasional holiday letter.

When I saw the ad for the Cuba trip, I knew I’d go. The idea of hanging out with Carol and Margaret in Cuba after all these years was enticing. And the timing was perfect.

Who knew when I paid for the trip last fall that in December President Barack Obama would announce a thaw in the Cold War–era relationship between the two countries?

Then January 2015 rolled around.

Over the next week we met with artists, writers, architects, filmmakers, sociologists, and members of Las Clandestinas, now elderly women who in 1959 helped topple the Batista regime.

We watched films, purchased artwork, attended lectures, ate delicious meals, and peppered our Cuban hosts with questions. No one had hard answers; the Cubans seemed as floored as we were.

The author and journalist Leonardo Padura, 2012 winner of Cuba’s National Prize for Literature, described the mood of the island as cautiously optimistic. “It’ll be a new relationship that won’t be easy,” he told us, “but it’s important.”

As a journalist, I wanted to know more about censorship. Would the Cuban government ease its policy of arresting dissidents, reporters, and activists who criticize the regime?

Walking through the streets of Old Havana one night with Professor Cerullo, I asked what she thought the next big changes would be.

She reminded me that we’d be meeting with the sociologist Mayra Espina the next day and that I could ask her about one of her articles that was on our pre-trip reading list.

“You read it, right?”


Some 30 years later, I felt like a 20-something-year-old student who had blown off an assignment.

“Not yet, Margaret, but I’ll read it before heading to bed tonight. Promise.”

Join Hampshire’s Cuba Travel Program for alums, parents, and friends.
January 7-15, 2016 •