Sag Harbor Students Return from Cuba with Love | By Douglas Feiden
The music was rapturous, the art was mesmerizing, the people were embracing and the long history of bad blood seemed like a fading and distant memory.
But the poverty was grinding, the standard of living was shocking, the wages were unfathomable and the sense of time rolling back into the 1950s and 1960s was inescapable.
Those were just a few of the thousands of impressions garnered by the 26 students from Pierson High School who traveled to Cuba last month for a week-long tour of the island nation that has long vexed American policy makers.
“Amazing,” said ninth grader Charlotte Johnson. “Eye-opening,” said 10th grader Emiley Nill. “Really beautiful and super-cool colonial architecture,” said 10th grader Sinead Murray. “And no one was on their iPhones all the time, which I find such a distraction, and that was just awesome!” marveled 12th grader Emma McMahon.
Accompanied by four chaperones, the high school students arrived at a historic pivot point in relations between Havana and Washington, which have been strained at best and hostile at worst since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959 and the Eisenhower administration severed diplomatic ties on January 4, 1961.
Now, the deep freeze is finally beginning to thaw: President Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations last year, removed Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror, reopened the U.S. embassy in Havana for the first time in half a century, eliminated many travel restrictions and has pushed Congress, unsuccessfully so far, to lift the long-standing trade embargo, which remains the last major impediment to full normalization of relations.
In fact, the students were exploring the sensory worlds of Cuban music, dance, art, culture, cuisine, gardening, orchid farming and
tobacco farming even as two new breakthrough deals were being unveiled on February 16 and 18.
In the first, commercial air traffic between the two countries will be restored. And in the second, an agreement was hammered out for President Obama to tour Havana later this month and huddle with Cuban President Raul Castro, making him the first sitting U.S. president to visit since Calvin Coolidge arrived on a battleship in 1928.
The Pierson contingent witnessed the rapprochement firsthand. In a popular craft market selling goods and tchotchkes, students were asked the inevitable question, “Where are you from?” As ninth grader Halle Woelk recounts the story, the answers quickly came back, “America” and “New York” and “Sag Harbor.”
The vendors were overjoyed: “Our new friends!” they told her.
“Every one of them was so welcoming to all of us, and really happy to see us, and many of them had never met an American before,” Halle added. “But they were ready to be in a relationship with America.”
In a group interview at Pierson, eight trip participants said they encountered propaganda on street billboards and in classrooms, but not a single student saw or personally experienced instances of anti-Americanism in their exchanges with scores of Cubans.
Yes, there were dark and unflattering caricatures of Uncle Sam on billboards, Charlotte said. And the glorification of revolutionary icon Che Guevara is such that schoolchildren still chant, “Pioneers for Communism, We will be like Che!”
But the genuine warmth of the islanders was unmistakable. “They were open and kind and welcoming and everybody really wanted us to be there,” said ninth grader Emily Hallock.
She was so stirred by island music — Afro-Cuban, samba, salsa, rumba, mambo and cha-cha — that she’s endeavoring with other students and teachers to put together a Cuban-style band, which will play the rhythms they learned and introduce them to the East End.