Spring trip shapes minds
Amherst College group sharpens their ideas during a week in Cuba
By Farah Stockman, Globe Staff
HAVANA -- All the ingredients for decadence were there: scantily
clad beauties, 90-degree
temperatures, and an endless supply of cheap mojitos, the Cuban rum drink flavored with mint and
lime. But no impressive tan lines loomed in the future for these nine Amherst College students.
Instead, their spring break last month featured 8 a.m. wake-up calls, hostel-style bunk beds, and a
week of meetings with supporters of Cuba's Communist Party.
As their friends slept off hangovers or soaked in the Caribbean,
the Amherst group paid $1,400
per person to talk in humid conference rooms with Marxist students and economists and leaf
through books like ''The Truth About the United States.''
''You're late,'' Nicholas Wexler, a 21-year-old history major
from Newton, was told as he and his
friends crept in one morning, bleary-eyed after a long night on the town.
Although the United States broke diplomatic ties with Cuba four
decades ago and now bans most
travel and trade to the country, ''alternative spring breaks'' and educational tours have mushroomed
here in recent years under Clinton-era travel laws that sought to democratize the socialist island
through social contact. But late last month Bush administration officials proposed sweeping new
restrictions on such trips to Cuba.
''Tourist travel and open-ended `solidary visits' to Cuba do not
reinforce US goals,'' said Charles
Barclay, a US State Department Spokesman. ''The latest move is to tighten up procedures, so that
people demonstrate that they are going down there for the kind of `focused people-to-people'
contact that we want to promote.''
The move is a setback for Cuba, which is eager to showcase the
bright side of the Marxist island to
idealistic young Americans and build the billion-dollar tourist industry that has been a lifeline since
the fall of the Soviet Union.
It is also a blow for US students, who swarmed into Havana by
the hundreds in recent weeks on
separate spring break trips.
They came from Amherst, Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, and a host of other US colleges.
''It's not about being in 90-degree weather,'' said Nelly Almeida,
18, who regretfully returned to
Amherst College without a tan. ''I wanted to see for myself what communism was like.''
It wasn't most people's vision of an ideal vacation: a $100 shopping
limit, free time restricted by
law, more than 14 hours of mandatory discussion and reflection, and toilets that can't flush toilet
paper. But they worked hard to get there, selling raffle tickets and doughnuts and braving the barbs
of family and friends who fretted about them turning ''commy.'' Even at Amherst College, where the
president's wife once spent a brief stint in a Cuban revolutionary brigade, they found themselves
explaining why they opted to spend their spring break conversing about Castro.
''A lot of people at Amherst think this is the most radical group
of kids,'' said Wexler. ''A lot of
people assume it's just liberal brainwashing.''
The label doesn't apply. Wexler says he is a ''commited skeptic''
about both Cuba and the United
States. Ashley Bates, a senior majoring in political science, has a fondness for the conservative
writer Ayn Rand and a deep reverence for theories of capitalism. And Almeida, a sophomore
originally from Ecuador, wants to run an afterschool program, but after she gets rich.
All three completed a class on Cuban politics that taught them
to be wary of Cuban propaganda.
All three were enthralled by Cuba when they arrived.
Bused around on a tight schedule by Witness for Peace, a US-based
human rights group that
opposes the trade and travel embargo on Cuba, the students' schedule was tight: A lecture on the
sugar-cane sector; a chance to ask a Cuban government official about the recent arrests of
so-called counterrevolutionaries; a night of mandatory salsa lessons.
At first, Cuba showed its charms. At the Museum of the Revolution
gift shop, photos of Ernesto
''Che'' Guevara prompted the sophomores to swoon. Then came a visit to a clinic, with socialized
health care nicely showcased when one sick member of the delegation received a shot in the
buttocks, completely free of charge.
And most impressive of all was the school, where Cuban youngsters
sang patriotic songs and
invited the Amherst group to participate. After a brief huddle to pick an appropriate song, ''The
Star-Spangled Banner'' was ruled out, and the Americans settled on ''The Hokey-Pokey.''
''I thought that was so pathetic,'' Almeida said later. ''They
sang this heart-filled song to us, their
faces were just filled with passion, and all we could sing was `The Hokey-Pokey.' ''
By the middle of the week -- after three disco nights, two lectures
from Protestant pastors, and
long reflection sessions -- people-to-people contact began to show Cuba's other face.
At a disco, Travis Bristol, a senior, chatted with an 18-year-old
prostitute who told him that
government rations can't get her family through the month.
Bates met a Cuban man who was dabbling in illegal self-employment,
because he couldn't stand
having the government looking over his shoulder, telling him how to do his job.
''I think it's great that you're trying to make it on your own,''
she told him. His eyes lit up, and the
two talked for almost an hour.
It's these kinds of interactions that US government officials
had in mind when they loosened
restrictions on some structured educational travel in 1992 and again in 1999.
''Hearing Americans describe how they go about their daily lives
is a radical enough idea in this
society to be of tremendous importance,'' said one American diplomat in Havana.
But on March 25, the US government sought to eliminate most travel
''people-to-people'' educational exchanges, on which tens of thousands of Americans have traveled
''There are too many individuals and groups that are going down
there for the sake of tourism,''
It is unclear how the new policy will effect Witness for Peace,
which operates on a religous license,
or other groups that hold licenses for humanitarian or for-credit academic travel. What is clear is
that alternative spring breaks to Cuba will be far harder to take next year, bad news for Marisa
Parham, the Amherst assistant professor of English who helped organize and chaperon the college
''We're being used by both sides, when the purpose of the trip
is to get you to think and come to
your own conclusions,'' she said.
On a Friday afternoon, two days before they flew back to their
old life in capitalist America, the
Amherst students piled into their bus and rode to the US Interest Section, which handles American
affairs in Havana. Outside, Cubans have erected a statue of a revolutionary hero pointing in disgust.
The students, bubbling over with anger at the US government, sat
down and peppered a State
Department official with questions about why Cuba had been singled out for an embargo.
Her answer, ''It's a matter of national security,'' left them looking skeptical.
But the toilet there, the first they had used all week that flushed
paper, left an even deeper
Deep into the night, they discussed the toilet's healthy, American-style
flush, as they changed into
sandals and shorts for an evening in Havana. Then they set off toward the crowds of Cuban
revelers, searching for people-to-people contact.