Tense US-Cuba relations cause cancellation of school trip

Redwood’s first ever school trip to Cuba, initiated over a year ago by Spanish teacher Todd Van Peursem, was undergoing the final stages of planning when he decided to cancel it earlier this school year due to escalating tensions between Cuba and the U.S.

Spanish teacher Todd Van Peursem (right) and 2017 Redwood graduate Auz Zadoff (left) in Panama last year, in a similar school abroad-trip organized by Van Peursem.

Spanish teacher Todd Van Peursem (right) and 2017 Redwood graduate Auz Zadoff (left) in Panama last year, in a similar school abroad-trip organized by Van Peursem.

On Oct. 3, the U.S. expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from their embassy in Washington as punishment for failing to protect 21 U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba who have reported suffering from mysterious symptoms such as minor brain trauma, deafness and dizziness. The U.S. believes that these illnesses are resulting from sonic attacks targeted at the diplomats, according to a BBC News article.  

These developments are a set-back to U.S.-Cuba relations that had been recovering under the Obama administration. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez described the decision to expel Cuban embassy officials from Washington as “hasty” and “irresponsible,” claiming that the attack allegations weren’t based on solid evidence, according to BBC News.

The conflicts between the U.S. and Cuba, in addition to the impact of Hurricane Irma on the island, influenced Van Peursem to cancel the trip that would have been offered to students this school year.

“I think June was when I first started seeing these articles pop up on BBC that were talking about U.S. diplomats and their children having difficulties in Cuba. And that was the first thing that came under my radar because from the moment school started in August [we were planning to] start pumping advertising and getting students signed up,” Van Peursem said.

Van Peursem said that although he is skeptical about the evidence behind these reports, he decided to pull back the trip because the safety of the students was his top priority.

In addition to safety concerns, Van Peursem, who has organized and traveled on several student trips to Latin American countries, said he didn’t want to proceed with advertising the Cuba trip and conducting informational meetings for students because he feared that rising tensions would impact its feasibility.

“Imagine if I had gone through and people had already put their deposits down and all of a sudden, President Trump comes out and says we are now issuing travel warnings to Cuba and that it’s not the safest place to go right now. How would I feel?” Van Peursem said.

The inaugural trip, based in Havana, was going to be focused on getting to know Cuba through experiences involving Cuban culture and making connections with local youth, according to Van Peursem. They had already built the itinerary and selected some local high schools to work with.

“Designed with culture, music, dance and high school kids, this first trip was going to be more of a ‘get to know you’ Cuba, ‘get to know you’ Havana, get to know the area, the local families and communities and to move into a couple of high schools to talk [with the youth] about what’s going on in their minds as Cuba was opening up to the rest of the world,” Van Peursem said.

To organize the trip, Van Peursem was working with the TUHSD Global Studies Department, which facilitates trips abroad for students in the district. He said the planning process involved hours of collaborating with the department and with partners in Cuba.

Although Redwood has never been on a trip to Cuba before, groups from Tamalpais High School have traveled to Cuba three times in the past through the Global Studies program, according to Global Studies Director, Brian Zailian.  

The first trip, in 2000, was a trip organized by the journalism program. Students who were part of The Tam News traveled to Havana and published their first color magazine. The next trip, conducted in 2001, was designed for students interested in art, music and dance to visit art, music and ballet schools in Havana and meet with local students. The latest trip was in 2013, when Tam’s boys’ baseball and girls’ softball teams went to Cuba to play baseball and softball with kids in Havana.

Zailian said that he didn’t face too many difficulties organizing the trip, despite the weak political relations between the two countries.

“I work with someone who’s Cuban, who has his own company in Miami, who knows the ins and outs. It’s really the networking because he has a vast network of connections, he knows exactly what he needs to do. It was actually a fairly simple thing to put together,” Zailian said. “But things are a little more difficult now and that’s why I think Mr. VP has found himself in the position he is in.”

Though it was never officially presented to students, Van Peursem said that many appeared interested when he discussed the trip with students he had traveled with in past years, and in his classes.

“The moment I said Cuba, the musicians were all excited to have a once in a lifetime to speak with Cuban musicians who have been creating amazing, beautiful music for years. It opens up the possibilities for all sorts of cultural focuses whether it’s photography, art, dance, theater, music, so many different types of kids, their eyes lit up when we mentioned Cuba,” Van Peursem stated.

Senior Rob Hoffman, who traveled to Panama with Van Peursem last year, was very excited about the trip.

“I had [Van Peursem] freshman year, and he had always been talking about doing a Cuba trip, but it just didn’t seem politically feasible. But when I had him again junior year, it became a more serious conversation once it looked like it was a possibility,” Hoffman said. “I was just pumped about the idea of seeing something that’s wholly different from what you would see in the United States or even other Latin American countries.”

Although Van Peursem has never traveled to Cuba, he said he has been dreaming about going for the past two decades, a reason why he was so passionate about the Redwood trip.

“Anyone who has been to Cuba within the last couple of years would tell you that it’s such an amazing place. It is rich culturally and the people are kind and compassionate and generous even though so many people have so much less than many of our community members here,” Van Peursem said.

He also explained that his deep appreciation for Cuban music draws him to the country.

“The vast majority of the music that I listen to on my own is traditional Cuban music. There is just a flow and a rhythm to the Cubana that is incredibly contagious and feels very positive, it’s heartfelt. It’s a warm vibrant culture and community,” Van Peursem said.

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