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BHS students: ‘ambassadors’ to pariah nation

By William Inman Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday August 16, 2000

As many as 30 Berkeley High School students may get to spend two weeks as ambassadors to one of the United States’ most inveterate political foes. They’ll live in the homes and study the agrarian ways of their Cuban hosts. 

School Board Vice President Terry Doran says he hopes to send a diverse group of Berkeley High’s finest to Cuba, with the help of the San Francisco non-profit Global Exchange, one of the few organizations in the country licensed as a Cuban Travel Service Provider by the U.S. Treasury Department. 

The school board will be asked Wednesday night to approve the trip. 

Originally planned for November, the trip will probably be tabled until January because of a lack of funds, Doran said.  

“We were a little optimistic and we thought we would be able to raise the money (by November),” he said. “But it’s definitely going to happen.” 

Doran, who hopes to take the trip as well, said that an earlier trip to the island nation with Global Exchange, combined with the introduction of a brand new environmental curriculum at Berkeley High, provided the impetus for the excursion. 

The new environmental program, called Common Ground, will be introduced this school year. It will feature a constellation of 10 environmental courses that will satisfy college requirements for students who plan to study or work in the field in the future. 

Students from the environmental program, as well as from the Communication and Arts and Sciences programs, and some others, will be selected by faculty for the trip, Doran said. 

“Our goal is to have as diverse a group as possible,” he said. “We want the group to reflect the population of Berkeley High.” 

Doran himself took a trip to Cuba with Global Exchange in the summer of 1993 as part of a Cuba Reality Tour offered by the group. 

Malia Everette, Director of the Reality Tours Program for Global Exchange, said that helping the students break through a political barrier and promote person-to-person ties with Cubans their age is a goal for her organization. 

She said it has never been illegal for anyone to travel to Cuba during the four-decade long trade embargo the U.S. has enforced on the country. It has, however, been illegal to spend any money there. 

“Over the years we have been finding different ways for people to travel to Cuba,” she said. “It is one of our most popular destinations because of its isolation.” 

She added that about a year ago the Office of Foreign Assets in the Treasury Dept. issued Global Exchange a specific license to obtain permits for groups to travel to Cuba. 

“We will submit an educational objective for the tour, and we’ll be able to get a license for the students and the teachers,” she said.  

Cuba presents a fantastic opportunity for students studying environmental protection and alternative farming, Everette said. The long-standing trade embargo has forced Cuba to revert back to organic farming procedures, because it has been unable to purchase pesticides and other equipment. 

As a result, Cuba has developed safer alternatives to sustaining the food supply, she said. 

Global Exchange has taken students to Cuba from other Bay Area high schools, Everette said. The School Board is in touch with faculty from one of them – Redwood City High School – to help with the process. 

Besides the academic and practical motivation, Everette said that the students will get the chance to “meet their Cuban counterparts.” 

“They’ll see what it’s like to live in an (isolated) country of 11 million and see how they’ve been able to survive, and thrive.” 

Doran said that the School Board is working on developing a list of possible individuals interested in sponsoring students. He added that a few musical groups have offered their time to hold benefits for the students. 

He estimated the trip would cost about $1,500 per student. 

“Each student will be committed to raising a portion of the cost, depending on what is realistic, like $500 to $700. We hope to subsidize the rest.” 

He said that he hopes to take between 15 and 30 students, and says that he would love to take more. But “it all depends on raising the funds,” he said. 

Doran said that he hopes the interest of students and other groups in Cuba will help ease the economic and political tension between the U.S. and Cuba. 

“The benefit of direct people-to-people contact, and the exchanging of ideas is very important to working toward that goal,” he said. 

He said that it’s their intention to arrange for the students to stay with Cuban families, and perhaps, “have a few Cuban exchange students attend Berkeley High next year,” he said. 

People interested in supporting the students can contact Doran at 644-6550.