AUGUSTA — University of Maine at Augusta students and faculty members traveling recently in Cuba saw signs of the U.S. embargo everywhere they looked.

The streets were filled with 1950s cars still running on little more than the ingenuity of Cuba’s do-it-yourself mechanics.

Children and professional artists alike were grateful for art supplies the UMA group brought for them because they have trouble obtaining them on the island.

The general poverty, scarcity of consumer goods and abundance of deteriorating buildings all have some connection to the isolation of an island cut off from its nearest neighbor and the world’s largest economy.

Despite the evidence of hardship, the visitors from UMA were charmed by Cuba’s physical beauty, the friendliness of its people and the rich variety of its art, history and culture. Their most direct experience of the fraught relations between the United States and Cuba didn’t happen until they were almost back on American soil.

“The embargo to me was far more evident when we did that eight-hour border crossing,” said Steve Heddricg, a student from Cushing.

Most of the group had to wait eight hours at the border crossing in Canaan, Vt. – they had flown through Montreal, the closest airport with flights to Havana – while U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers inspected items they had brought back from Cuba and seized several of them. The travelers argue that the items, including jewelry and embroidery, should have been allowed through because they’re art, but the officers apparently disagreed.

“They were making determinations what was art and what was not,” said Robert Rainey, assistant professor of photography at UMA. “And I would say to them, just jokingly, ‘You have an art professor here.’ ”

TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS EASED

Art is a major focus of the course to which the trip was linked, “Cuba: Understanding Between the Arts.” It’s one of the interdisciplinary integrated courses that UMA has offered in recent years, and its students will earn nine credits – three each for Cuban art and architecture, contemporary Latin American literature and introduction to digital art.

The idea emerged from a previous integrated course on the theme of revolution in Latin America, which included a trip to Nicaragua. It touched on Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution, so a course about Cuba seemed like a natural next step, Rainey said.

Central to the Cuba course was a trip to the island during spring break, March 27 to April 6. Students had to apply to be admitted to the course and paid a $2,400 fee to cover the cost of the trip.

Although the Obama administration has loosened restrictions on travel to Cuba, most Americans still cannot go without obtaining a license from the U.S. Treasury Department for a specific purpose or traveling with an organization that has a license. Certain activities, however, are covered under a general license, including educational travel for a credit-bearing academic course.

All that the 16 students, four faculty members and one retired faculty member needed to do was carry a letter signed by Dean of Arts and Sciences Greg Fahy, on UMA letterhead, describing the trip and activities planned.

A trip like UMA’s probably would not have been possible five years ago, said Emily Chow, senior associate for the Cuba program of the Latin America Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that opposes the embargo and restrictions on travel.

When she studied abroad in Cuba in 2009, for example, the American University program was one of only about 10 authorized, the program was required to be at least three months long and its license had to be renewed every year. It would have been difficult for most institutions to comply with the severe enforcement of regulations by the administration of President George W. Bush, Chow said.

The partial opening of Cuba to Americans created an enticing opportunity, Rainey said. He was the only person on the trip who had been there before, and many of the students had never traveled abroad at all.

The UMA group visited Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad, which has a partner municipality relationship with Brunswick. They saw architectural landmarks including a Baroque cathedral that resembles contemporary 18th-century churches in Spain; the former capitol building, which was inspired by the U.S. Capitol; and the Bacardi Building, which was built in Art Deco style for the rum company.

They also visited Cuba’s top academy for the arts, the studios of several artists, and history museums. They made contacts at a cultural center that could lead to opportunities for UMA’s jazz program.

The students will incorporate materials they brought back – such as sketches, journal entries, thousands of photographs and hours of video – into final projects that could consist of papers, portfolios or digital arts productions.

The faculty and students also are organizing events for the rest of the university. A Cuban dance band will play and Cuban food will be served at an event Monday; and on April 28 Inverna Lockpez will speak in Jewett Hall Auditorium. Lockpez’s graphic novel, “Cuba: My Revolution,” is on the course syllabus.

Students said their lasting impressions of Cuba were of the ubiquity of art, the warmth of the people they met and the ways people survive amid poverty and scarcity.

Heidi Strassberg-Bersani called the trip a life-changing experience.

“It was hard for me to go into stores and know that we have this abundance here in this country, and that we’re so consumeristic that we don’t realize how people can live on very little,” she said. “The ingenuity of what they did with so little is just astounding.”

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER?

In addition to the photographs and memories, the travelers brought back several tangible souvenirs, only to have some of them confiscated.

U.S. law prohibits the importation of most Cuban products, including coffee, cigars and rum; but there are no limits on informational items, including books, films, music, posters and artwork. Regulations say that artwork includes paintings, drawings, pastels, original engravings or prints and original sculptures.

Susan Brown Stoddard, an art history professor, said other people who had been to Cuba told them that crafts were generally accepted as art by customs officers. She understands why items such as Che Guevara T-shirts were taken, but other items were handmade crafts, including jewelry and straw bags.

“They were important to people because they were memories of Cuba, and they enjoyed buying them from the people they bought them from,” she said.

Strassberg-Bersani is baffled that a hand-embroidered tablecloth and a bracelet from a pottery studio were not considered artwork. She managed to hang on to one piece, a beaded necklace, by stowing it separately in her luggage.

Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at:

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Twitter: @s_e_mcmillan