MINNEAPOLIS - A University of Minnesota undergraduate studying in Cuba in 2014 said she was raped by a local interpreter who offered to help with her research.
The university last year agreed to pay $137,500 to settle a lawsuit brought by the student, Natalie Carlson, who said the group’s chaperone failed to supervise them and mistreated Carlson after the assault.
The university, which admitted no wrongdoing, recently released the settlement agreement in response to a St. Paul Pioneer Press records request.
Carlson’s attorney, Natalie Feidt, received 40 percent of the payment.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press typically does not identify victims of sexual assault, but Carlson agreed to be named for this story. She otherwise declined to comment beyond what she wrote in the complaint filed last year in Hennepin County District Court.
According to that complaint, Carlson joined a group traveling to Puerto Rico and Cuba in summer 2014 through the Student Project for Amity among Nations, or SPAN, a study-abroad program.
A political science major with a Spanish minor, she planned to research homelessness in Puerto Rico and government housing in Cuba for her senior thesis. That work required interviewing locals about their living situations.
SPAN’s Cuba affiliate, Centro de Estudios Martianos, hired a man named Marcel Benet to interpret for the group of six female and two male students. Benet offered to help Carlson find local residents to interview.
From 9:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. one night, they walked through neighborhoods before ending up at the home where Benet lived with his mother.
Carlson planned to interview Benet about his living conditions. Instead, he trapped her in his bedroom and raped her several times, she said.
Carlson returned to her hotel room, where her roommate found her crying and informed Melisa Riviere, a University of Minnesota lecturer who was supervising the students.
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,” Carlson wrote.
Carlson later was forced to ride to a local police station in the same taxi as Benet in order to report the assault.
She ultimately declined to press charges because she was told she’d have to stay in Cuba until the case was resolved.
The study-abroad program fired the interpreter for what they deemed “consensual” sex with a student, Carlson said.
Back in Minneapolis, Carlson complained to the university about her assault and Riviere’s response. Several months later, in April 2015, the university opted not to punish Riviere, Carlson said.
Riviere continued to serve as Carlson’s adviser for the research project. Despite being able to graduate in spring 2015, Carlson said she missed classes and suffered from a long list of medical problems because of the assault.
Carlson’s lawsuit accused the university, SPAN and Riviere of failing to prepare and supervise the students. She said Riviere drank and did drugs during the trip, neglected to ensure students were safely in their rooms at night and failed to adequately report Carlson’s rape.
Riviere did not respond to requests for comment.
Her employment with the University of Minnesota ended in April 2016.
The university said Riviere was the subject of one complaint while employed there but was not disciplined.