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Catlin Gabel students anticipate cultural exchange during Cuba trip

One of the things Catlin Gabel School students hope to accomplish during an almost two-week trip to Cuba is connecting with the people and trying to get an unvarnished look of what life is like in one of the few insular Communist countries left in the world.

What they aren't trying to do is make a political statement of any sort when they leave for the Caribbean island on Sunday.

'Really, the purpose is not political,' said Roberto Villa the Catlin Gabel Spanish teacher who will lead the trip. 'It's educational and humanitarian.'

Villa said the trip is a rare opportunity for 25 of the school's upper level Spanish language students to get a close-up look at the country, a place that is experiencing a transition of sorts after Raul Castro was recently named president.

Many of the students going on the trip say they are looking forward to meeting the people of the country and getting a glimpse into their culture.

'We have to remember Cuba is not synonymous with Fidel (Castro),' said Victoria Trump-Redd, a Catlin Gabel junior.

With the main purpose of the trip being humanitarian, students and their chaperones will be carrying medical supplies as well as school and athletic supplies.

Villa, whose group was invited to the country by the Cuban Ministry of Education, said the other goal is to make a one-to-one connection with the people of Cuba. That invitation will allow students to visit schools, clinics and hospitals outside what other visitors would normally see.

'That's why we're going,' said Villa. 'We're not going as an act of defiance against our government.'

The students say they want to see for themselves what effect the U.S. embargo has had on the Cuban people.

'I'm looking forward to judging for myself to see if the trade embargo is a good thing or a bad thing,' said junior Miranda Johnson.

Trump-Redd said she thinks it will be the little things they bring - the baseballs, the soccer balls and Frisbees - that will go a long way to help bridge the gap between the two cultures.

'I think it improves the people-to-people connection,' she said.

The students said they plan to take less personal items in order to stuff their bags with things for the Cuban residents they meet. Some of the items include several duffel bags filled with both over-the-counter and specialized medicines including those to treat HIV/AIDS.

Half of those medical donations will be distributed to a Jewish temple, which also has a large pharmacy, with the other half delivered to a Catholic Church, said Villa.

Last week, junior Miranda Johnson said she spent around $150 to purchase ibuprofen, multi-vitamins and other basic medications to donate to the Cubans. In addition, she found large packs of colored chalk she plans to give to children she meets.

The students said they are acutely aware of the economic situation of the country, where items such as highlighter markers and pencils are treasured items.

Madeline Morawski, a junior, said she is looking forward to meeting her Cuban counterparts and determine if life has changed at all under the leadership of Raul Castro. Morawski noted that this is a country where residents are limited to government rations of only one bar of soap per month, a kilo of meat and six eggs.

Junior Bhakthi Sahgal, one of three Indian students to go, said she's excited to meet people and travel to locations normally off-limits to foreigners. She's also eager to interact with regular residents she meets on the street.

Sahgal said she and two other students plan to perform classical Indian dances when they are there.

Villa admits that he and his students are witnessing historic events in Cuba. He said Raul Castro has already made two human rights agreements. Also, Raul Castro recently has lifted the ban on the purchase of computers and DVD players.

'Until yesterday, there were no computer stores in Cuba,' Villa said Friday.

Although buoyed by the recent improvements, Villa, who has been to Cuba seven times, is realistic about the changes.

'I believe the transition is happening,' he said. 'I believe it will be a slow, gradual and controlled transition.'

But Villa said he's optimistic about the fact that Raul Castro recently announced that residents could give the president constructive criticism.

In addition to visiting two to three schools and one vocational school, the Catlin Gabel students will see more touristy aspects of the country including touring a cigar factory and the home where Ernest Hemingway lived for more than two decades.