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For the week of May 9 through May 15, 2001

‘Both sides have something to learn’

Student tours Cuba on Bay of Pigs anniversary

Express Staff Writer

When you’re an American traveling in communist Cuba, Graham Donald says, the first thing people do is "look at your shoes—to see if you’re wearing Nikes."

If so, often they’ll ask, quite sincerely, to have them as a gift.

A group of young Cuban musicians entertain passersby on a Havana street.

Donald, 18, a senior at The Community School, didn’t give up his Nikes when he spent a week last month in Havana and Santa Clara to complete the requirements of his senior project and to gather material for his senior thesis. But he did learn a thing or two about Cuban communism—mostly, that the citizenry doesn’t always buy into the anti-American sentiment propagated by the Cuban government.

An American embargo, and prohibitions against Cubans’ leaving their country, have had far-reaching effects on the Cuban people. Donald said he saw that most people had clothes and enough food to get by, but often were so broke they couldn’t afford even small extras like a pack of gum.

With visas granted almost exclusively for the purpose of cultural exchange, and no commercial airlines making regularly scheduled flights to the island (Donald took a chartered flight), very few Americans go there.

"I felt really uncomfortable at first," Donald said, especially when he found himself surrounded on a Havana street by hundreds of armed soldiers gathering for a speech by Fidel Castro on the 40th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs victory.

Graham Donald , of Ketchum (third from the left), poses with new found friends he met during a tour of Cuba last month. Courtesy photos

Speaking from a raised platform, Castro’s "first line was like, ‘Forty years ago, the Americans betrayed us,’ " Donald said. "He calls Americans imperialists."

That attitude can be found widely in Granma, the national newspaper, and displayed on billboards and other places, where, in capitalist countries, advertising would normally exist.

But the people who attended the rally were there "because they were pressured to be," Donald said. When he talked to them in Spanish, "they said basically it’s the U.S. government that’s doing the bad things, not the people in the U.S."

Donald found that to be a common belief when he visited a hospital, tobacco farm, biosphere reserve and university, where students curious about America easily struck up conversations.

All of this made Donald feel "really sad," he said. "I felt really isolated there. I felt like if I didn’t have my plane ticket in my backpack, I wouldn’t be able to leave."

Donald’s senior thesis, and a presentation he plans to give at The Community School on Monday at 3:30 p.m., focus on the relationship between Cuba and America. From what he saw on his trip, he believes that relationship could be better if "Fidel wasn’t so paranoid and the U.S. took off its embargo."

"Both sides have something to learn," he said, including America, which needs to be "more flexible," and not "cringe" at the word "communism."

Donald’s trip was one of many The Community School seniors made in April as part of their senior projects. Meant to stress individuality, Donald said, the projects included Emilie DuPont’s trip to Los Angeles to learn about movie production, Johanna Marvel’s trip to Spain to learn about puppeteering and Rob Rutherford’s trip to Japan to learn about the making and marketing of video games.


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