Lawsuit: University of Minnesota Advisor Lectured About ‘Cultural Differences’ After Student Reported Being Raped in Cuba

University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota / Wikimedia Commons

The University of Minnesota agreed to pay a large sum to a former student who claims that after she was raped in Cuba, an academic advisor blamed her for being culturally insensitive.

Natalie Carlson sued the university claiming that the rape happened while she studied abroad in 2014 and that was mistreated afterwards by the university chaperone and anthropology lecturer Melisa Riviere. The University of Minnesota settled for $137,500 last year, a settlement that came to light after a Freedom of Information Act request from The St. Paul Pioneer Press. (Standard media practice is to avoid naming rape victims, but Carlson agreed to be named publicly in the Pioneer Press report.)

Carlson, a political science major with a Spanish minor, planned to research homelessness in Puerto Rico and government housing in Cuba for her senior thesis. As part of that work, she was interviewing locals about their living situations during the study-abroad trip.

According to the lawsuit, the study-abroad program hired a man named Marcel Benet to work as an interpreter for the students in Cuba. He and Carlson walked through several neighborhoods before arriving at Benet's house, ostensibly to interview Benet himself. There, he allegedly trapped her in his bedroom and raped her multiple times.

Carlson's roommate found her crying afterwards in their hotel room, and informed Riviere. But the lawsuit claims that rather than being supportive, Riviere blamed the victim.

"The next day, Riviere told Carlson she should have known better than to go with Benet, the complaint states. Riviere said Carlson should have been more aware of cultural differences and that at least the interpreter ‘was a gentleman and walked (her) home after,'" the Pioneer Press reports.

When reporting the crime to the Cuban authorities, Carlson was made to share a cab with her alleged rapist. She declined to press charges after being informed that she would have to stay in the country for the duration of legal process. Carlson also filed a complaint against Riviere back in the United States, but the University of Minnesota decided not to punish her and she remained an advisor on Carlson's research project.