Witnesses to History

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Reflections from Catlin Gabel students and teachers on their "people to people" trip to Cuba

A group of 25 Upper School students and four adults had the rare chance to see history in the making when they traveled to Cuba for 11 days during spring break, at a time when Cuba began to see great changes. No high school group had visited Cuba since U.S. travel restrictions were tightened in 2004. Trip leader Roberto Villa, an Upper School Spanish teacher, was able to secure a humanitarian visa for the group, and they brought 1,200 pounds of medicine and other supplies. Their non-political aim was to connect with the Cuban people. They came back with many stories, a few of which follow.

29 students and teachers visited Cuba in March and April. Here are some of their stories.


When anyone asks me what my favorite part about Cuba is, I can give them a one-word answer, people. You never get into a taxi there or sit down at a restaurant and not engage with your taxi driver or your waiter. The most memorable time for me in Cuba was our last night in Havana. A group of us were sitting on the Malecón, the city’s long sea wall. Throughout the course of the three or four hours we sat there, people would mill past and begin speaking to us. A boy our age who had difficulty speaking memorized each of our names and birthdays. A group of musicians came up to us and serenaded us. But the part that made me cry was when I talked to an old woman.

I gave her a bar of soap instead of buying the goods she was trying to sell me. She inhaled the scent of the soap deeply and thanked me. She told me that in Cuba they couldn’t find things like that. When she found out I was from the U.S. she told me about her daughter who lived there, an artist who had injured her hand working in a factory. The old woman told me that she used to be an art teacher, and pointing to her goods added, “Circumstances have led to me selling this.” As she was talking, my eyes started welling up and I realized how much I didn’t want to leave these people here. Everyone always said the problem is between the governments, not between the people. They have dealt with so much and yet they never hated us for being from the United States.

On Havana's sea wall


On our visit to Cuba, the value of seeing firsthand the way the government affects the daily life of every person was immeasurable. While we saw no advertisements for products, the side of the highway is sprinkled with billboards and communist slogans both encouraging people to be like Che, their “example,” and denouncing the U.S. government. I was unprepared for the complete devotion many Cuban people have to both Fidel and the Revolution. However, we also met many Cubans who greatly desire change and are desperate for an improved economy. It was incredibly interesting to visit during a time when many changes are in fact being made, such as the lifting of restrictions on buying cell phones and computers.

The people we met were some of the friendliest I have ever encountered. The Cuban students were as curious about the United States as we were about Cuba. After speaking with all the kids who seem so similar to us, it was strange to consider how different our lives actually are. We also had many conversations with people we met on the streets or along the Malecón that revealed the struggles they face with the economy.

I realized that while Fidel Castro should not be supported, the United States should do its best to aid the people of Cuba and promote understanding. I believe this understanding can be gained through trips such as ours that rely on interaction between individuals, regardless of political beliefs. One of the hardest things about leaving was the knowledge that I might never have the chance to return to a country that is so beautiful and welcoming.

A quiet moment on the trip to Cuba


One of the highlights of the Cuba trip for me was attending Shabbat services at the synagogue in Havana. We had visited Beth Shalom earlier that day to drop off donations, and the Jewish students had been invited to return for services that evening. I was amazed at the beauty of the synagogue and the obvious love and care that had gone into its well-being. When I first arrived, I was nervous being on my own, but as soon as I got inside I was greeted warmly by the young man who had given us a tour earlier that day.

Many people crowded around inside and out, all dressed up and talking happily. The people were warm and inviting, and many times I was greeted with “Shabbat shalom.” Soon, the service started, and a young cantor with a stunning voice began to lead us in prayer. During the service I was able to follow along easily because the prayers were in Hebrew, the same ones that we sing at my own synagogue in Portland. I felt a strong connection to the people around me, and completely comfortable in the elegant sanctuary. It might seem that going to a Shabbat service just like one I might encounter in the United States would not be a uniquely Cuban experience, but I had never had the opportunity to attend services outside of Portland, and it was amazing to feel at home 3,000 miles from Oregon.

Becoming friends with Cuban history


The bus rolled gracefully on the one-lane highway as we played cards, talked, and looked out the window at the beautiful scenery. Fields of tall green grass were filled with cows grazing lazily in the sun. Headed towards the outskirts of Havana, we were on our way to visit the Che Guevara Institute. Finally, we turned onto a small, windy, red dirt road, and pulled up to the front of the high school. It was a large red building with a larger-than-life mural of Che Guevara himself on the front steps. As we filed off the bus and entered the school, a large crowd of kids had gathered, clad in their baby blue and navy uniforms. As we were led to the small one-room library, we looked as curiously at the kids as they looked at us.

As we moved down the hall, kids stopped what they were doing and turned to look at us. Students shyly came in and out to peer at us and whisper to their friends. Yet these looks were not ones of contempt. When introduced, we were greeted with smiles and hugs by people we had never seen before in our lives. After standing awkwardly together and trying to carry on conversations, we decided to play a game of soccer outside.

Some ambitious classmates went directly onto the field, while I, along with some other friends, stood on the side of the field talking and looking around. Almost instantly a boy came up to us with a soccer ball and asked us if we wanted to pass it around. We played timidly in an awkward silence, but within a few moments we were laughing and running around. Soon, other students had also come over to join the circle. A few of us pulled out our cameras, and we all began taking pictures with one another.

“Como te llamas?” I asked him. What’s your name?

“Reñan” he said. “Y tú?” And you?

“Bhakthi” I said.

“Bati? Qué?”

“No. Bhakthi.”

He smiled. “Aha, tuanis. Quieres venir conmigo?” Oh cool, you want me to show you around?”

And just like that, we became friends.

Playing soccer with students from the Che Guevara Institute
Experiencing the warmth of the Cuban people


I initially set out on our Cuba trip with the belief that the United States should simply drop the embargo, as it would bring economic benefits to both us and the working-class Cuban. However, I now strongly question whether I truly want that to occur. A former government official told us he suspected the Cuban government would limit the role of capitalism if the embargo falls, allowing only certain businesses and deciding where and how things such as hotels would be built.

I look at Pinar Del Río in all its jungle splendor and Trinidad, the quaint colonial hub on the ocean, I look at Old Havana in all its antiquated grandeur, and I wonder how they would seem with hotels blocking their shores and marring their landscapes, disturbing the natural tapestry. I look at the strong, well-built young men, and the thin, attractive young women at the school and I think, how would they be with McDonalds, Burger King, and Starbucks on every corner? How would the people react to the polarization of wealth that could occur from capitalist investment? Would that great culture, that great natural pride fade, along with all those smiles on faces? I do not know. No one knows.

For all those great things I worry may be destroyed, I realize that Cuba suffers from tainted education, universal yet low quality healthcare, and most of all, severe, painful poverty. Capitalism coming to Cuba, in many ways, is inevitable. I simply hope it does not wash away the culture of an incredible place, and the vitality of an incredible people within which any of us could find friendship and love.

Roberto Villa with students from the Che Guevara Institute


Many incredible and meaningful moments characterized our visit to Cuba: a visit with noted film producer Humberto Solás, a visit to the central hospital in Old Havana, a meeting with the Young Communist League, and all our interaction and conversations with the Cuban people. The one experience that stands out in my mind is when we visited the Che Guevara Institute, an agrarian and sustainable high school one hour east of La Havana.

We learned that the Che Guevara students are pretty much the same as Catlin Gabel students. They wear the same clothes, listen to the same music, and share the same dreams and hopes for the future. The Cuban students are faced with many of the same issues that our youngsters deal with in our society (peer pressure, parental expectations, and boy-girl relationships). They are resilient, happy, patriotic, and very much involved in their education.

Leaving the school was very difficult and emotional for everyone. In just five hours, Catlin Gabel students managed to establish what we hope will be long-lasting friendships with their host peers, and there were many teary eyes when we finally had to say goodbye. As we boarded our bus we rolled down the windows and waved to all the students, who were standing in the hallways waving back, a heartfelt goodbye. ¡Hasta la próxima!

Dance, the universal language
The group brought 17 duffle bags of humanitarian supplies