January 9 , 2001
University of La Verne class and three professors relish opportunity to visit Communist country, but worry about effects on its people.
By Joanna Corman. Los Angeles Times. Tuesday, January 9, 2001
LA VERNE -- Zoila Garcia, 62, left Cuba in 1970 in search of freedom for her family. On Saturday, she returned for the first time.
She did so with mixed feelings.
Garcia will be a translator for University of La Verne students and their professors, a milestone for ULV considering the U.S. government opened borders last April to students, government officials, journalists and U.S. residents with family there.
American tourists still are forbidden in the Communist country.
"Here's a place that we've heard so much about" and with so many mixed messages, communications professor Don Pollock said. "We said what a great opportunity for our students to see firsthand and come to some of their own conclusions. The main thing, it's just a phenomenal learning experience for the students."
Each January, students take a monthlong class that often involves travel. Pollock, communications department chairman George Keeler and Richard Gelm, a political science professor, are teaching media and politics of Cuba.
Keeler and Pollock have visited the Amazon rain forest in Brazil. They've taken students to Costa Rica. But this two-week trip proved to be one of the most popular, Keeler said.
"Relations are going to thaw" between the U.S. and Cuba, Keeler said. "We see this as a privilege to go to this country before it thaws."
Twenty-one students and three professors went with Garcia. They know they will have access to places from which Cubans are barred.
Student Michael Anklin told his classmates that he's looking forward to comparing reality to his preconceptions. He wonders if conditions there are as bad as people say.
"We're going to some posh resorts, some of the nicest resorts in the world," Gelm told him. "We're not going to see the real Cuba."
The class will talk to students at the University of Havana. Students will tour television and radio stations. They'll meet with officials from the U.S. government.
Arranging these meetings proved to be more difficult than the professors expected. The travel agent became so frustrated with bureaucratic red tape that she went to Cuba in December to organize the meetings, Pollock said.
They plan to take in a baseball game and tour a village where the only source of transportation is horse and buggy. Students are expected to do projects that range from filming salsa dance and cigar factories to creating a Web site that will capture the class's experiences.
But the trip is not without controversy or fear.
The class received a scathing letter from the Voice of the Cuban Christians Inc., which has a post office box in Montclair. The group chastised the university for supporting a totalitarian regime.
"You're not going to make everybody happy," said Raul Mena, a student and Cuban native. "This trip for me is [about] family. ... I don't care if I give $100 to Castro as long as I get to see my family" and bring them money and other necessities.
Several students said they were fearful about going. Some were apprehensive about the language barrier and the possibility of misunderstanding. Some were concerned that in talking to Cubans, they would put the Cubans at risk for losing their jobs, Keeler said.
"The danger is not for us," Keeler said. "It's for the people we come in contact with. ... Cubans are second-class citizens in their own country."
Garcia, a department secretary, said she is not scared; she never actively opposed Castro. But returning was a hard decision, she said.
"I can put myself on the side of the Cubans because I lived there many years," Garcia said. "I feel somewhat like a traitor going back as a tourist. ... I could tell you so many stories, so many things I lived when I was there that formed [my concept] of a suffering Cuba."
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times
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