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Students watch history unfold

Instructor spots way to help Cuban citizens and the Portland teens he teaches
by: JIM CLARK, Roberto Villa conducts his Spanish 6 class at Catlin Gabel School. Twenty-five juniors and seniors from the school have been studying Cuba’s customs, history and politics, and even its slang, in preparation for their 11-day trip there this month.

As the world watches the political affairs of Cuba from afar, 25 Portland high school students will get to see the country’s historic transition of power firsthand. On a spring break trip of a lifetime, a group of juniors and seniors from Southwest Portland’s private Catlin Gabel School will leave for Cuba on March 23 and spend 11 days on an educational and humanitarian mission, visiting with student groups, diplomats and cultural icons such as famed filmmaker Humberto Solas. While the trip has been in the works since last fall, it was lucky timing for the students that last month Cuban President Fidel Castro stepped down after 49 years, succeeded by his brother, Raúl Castro. “I think we are living in a moment of history,” says Roberto Villa, the Spanish-language instructor who spearheaded the opportunity based on relationships he’s forged with the Cuban government over the past eight years. “My students are going to feel, hear and see the transition. … We’re privileged; no other school is doing this.” Villa, who has taught at Catlin Gabel for 25 years, has been on seven trips to Cuba himself, including leading two student groups to the island nation in June 2001 and March 2003 at the invitation of the Cuban ministry of education. Last fall he was intent on taking another student group, but he found that President Bush in 2004 had tightened travel restrictions to the country in the long-standing U.S. embargo against Cuba, making it rare if not impossible for a school group to visit. Yet Villa was determined to find a way and learned that he could take a group by obtaining a humanitarian designation. He got one in December and quickly launched a community drive that has brought in tons of donated supplies that the students will distribute during their trip. They’ve collected everything from antibiotics and HIV/AIDS antivirals to personal hygiene products, cell phones, school supplies and Frisbees — all items requested by their Cuban counterparts. They’ll spend most of their time in the capital of Havana but also travel to the cities of Pinar del Rio, Trinidad and Santa Clara. Among the political highlights they have planned: meeting with Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a former top Cuban diplomat who now serves as the coordinator of international strategic studies, and participating in a roundtable discussion with students in a Youth Communist League. People power carries day Bhakthi Sahgal, a junior who, like her classmates, has been studying Spanish for several years, said she’s particularly eager to hear what her Cuban peers have to say. She said she’ll keep the theme of the trip in mind: “pueblo a pueblo,” which the students have translated to “people to people.” “While our governments may differ on the issues, that doesn’t mean people have to be hostile toward each other,” she said. “We’re going there as citizens of the world.” To prepare for the trip, the students have immersed themselves in Cuban politics, history, music, even the Cuban accent and slang. And they say they’re ready for the issues that they’ll probably be asked about as Americans: the Iraq war, Guantánamo, poverty, gangs, school shootings — “all the things they know about us and don’t have there, because of their government,” Villa says. So how will the students respond? “They will say they can have their own positions which are different from the government, and they can express it,” Villa says. They’ll also respond with questions of their own. “I wonder what they think about how democratic the ‘democratic’ elections were,” junior Annie Coonan said. Also, she wonders what Cubans think about their seemingly bizarre government restrictions, such as home stays with Cubans being against the law. Julia Ruby, a junior, added that she’ll be curious to see “how the government is involved in the streets, and in people’s daily lives, and how it’ll affect us in any way.” The students will take photos, keep journals and share their experience at a school assembly upon their return. The cost of the trip came to $3,385 per student, paid by their families with the exception of four students, who received financial aid from the school. Annual high school tuition at Catlin Gabel is $21,840. Students are tourists, too The trip won’t be all about politics. In between their talks and humanitarian visits, the students will tour the historic center of Old Havana, visit the seaside village that inspired Ernest Hemingway to write “The Old Man and the Sea,” learn about the history of the cigar and tobacco in Cuba and stop at the Bay of Pigs, where, in 1961, Cuban exiles attempted to overthrow the Castro regime. They’ll also visit the agrarian Che Guevara High School in Havana, where students live five days a week and learn about sustainability. Villa says the school has expressed interest in being a sister school to Catlin Gabel, doing lesson exchanges between their English and math departments on an ongoing basis. Villa said even though he had to jump through hoops to get the trip lined up, it was worth it because as an educator, he believes his students “should have free access to the world.” As to the overarching question on everyone’s mind — whether the end of Fidel Castro’s regime will bring real change — Villa has faith, inspired by the fact that Raúl Castro, 76, already has signed two human rights agreements opposed by his brother. Villa said it’s essential, however, for the U.S. to make efforts to talk with Cuban leaders without preconditions. Currently, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama is the only presidential candidate who has said he would do so. In a way, Villa said, the Catlin Gabel students will help to forge the way to change with their ambassadorship. “I believe our small presence is one small step to realizing these goals,” Villa said. “We are going there against the current. The more trips like this, the more change we’ll see in Cuba. When people start to talk, change happens.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.