Despite the decidedly negative foreign interaction between the United States and Cuba over the past 50 years, cultural ties between the two nations have never been stronger. This past weekend, the Boston College Cuban-American Student Association (CASA) hosted 100 students from universities worldwide for the eighth Annual Roots of Hope National Youth Leadership Conference on Cuba.
CASA has been organizing the conference since October of 2010, and worked extensively on creating an application for BC to serve as the host school for several months. Previous hosts of the conference include Georgetown, Princeton, Duke, Harvard, and Cornell. Roots of Hope, a non-profit organization which works to empower Cuban American youth, co-sponsored the event.
The conference, which lasted from Friday morning to Sunday afternoon, featured panels of distinguished speakers who commented on some of the most pressing issues to Cubans and Cuban Americans in the world today.
The Archbishop of Miami, Thomas Wenski, served as the keynote speaker. Other panelists included Father Jose Conrado of Santiago de Cuba and Orlando Marquez, a spokesman for the Cuban Catholic Church.
Marlena Papavaritis, co-president of CASA and A&S ’11, spoke about the significance of the weekend. “This was an incredibly inspirational conference, as it marked the first time that we had panelists fly directly from Cuba to attend,” she said. Travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba had previously prevented many potential speakers from attending the conference.
“We simply want for the Cuban people, but the Cuban youth in particular, to know that we are here as a resource for them and that we care about them, even though we find ourselves on opposite ends of the Florida Straits,” Papavaritis said in summary of the conference’s goal.
Numerous panels were held throughout the weekend on Brighton Campus, covering a variety of topics pertinent to Cuba and the Cuban youth. The first panel, “The Cuban Catholic Church in the 21st Century,” discussed the increasing activism of the Catholic Church in Cuba. “The conference involved the discussion of the increasing leadership of the Catholic Church in Cuba, given their recent involvement in negotiation for the release of over 50 prisoners-of-conscience within the past few months,” Papavaritis said.
Another panel, titled “Cuba Connected: Reach Out, Connect, Inspire,” discussed the increasing globalization Cuba is currently undergoing as travel restrictions and changes in Cuban law allow more worldwide recognition of Cuban citizens and accomplishments. The speakers, including Manela Diaz, an administrator at Georgetown, and Rob Sequin of the Havana Journal, discussed what young Cubans can do to spread awareness of Cuban issues and achievements.
On Saturday, students discussed the drastic new changes in Cuba’s economic policy, including the elimination of more than 1 million public sector jobs in a move to create a more capitalist Cuban economy. Speakers included Nicolas Sanchez, a professor at Holy Cross, and Carlos Saladrigas of the Cuba Study Group. Discussion not only covered the changes, but also what Cuban-Americans can do to help Cuba steer through a difficult time economically.
“There are many messages that I would say students from universities across the U.S. and abroad took from this conference, with one of the main ones being that it is through reaching out and establishing human-to-human relationships with our counterparts on the island that we break the cycle of insulation,” Papavaritis said. “To sum it up, we fully support young Cubans in their right to dream, to determine their own futures, and to express themselves freely and openly.”