14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 1 October 2016 — Their names are barely known, but now they find themselves in the middle of acts of political reaffirmation and facing police interrogations. They are young people between the ages of 16 and 18, high school and polytechnic students who participated in the World Learning program by attending a summer course in the United States. Today their lives pass amid slogans and fears.
On condition of anonymity, this newspaper contacted several of the young people who spent four weeks in the program in the United States. None wanted to reveal their identity, out of fear, although at this point the people they fear know who they are.
“What did you do there. What did they say to you? What did they want you to do when you returned to Cuba? Who paid for your trip?” These are some of the questions that the Department of Technical Investigations (DTI) from the National Police have repeated to many of them in recent months.
The young people went for the joy of knowing another country and interacting with teenagers from other parts of the world, only to be cited by the police on their return to Cuba. In these meetings they were also warned that they should not talk to the press nor with anyone else about this matter.
According to the teens, the worst was not the interrogations, but being compelled to participate in political events to repudiate the US organization. In their own schools and amid the shouts of revolutionary reaffirmation, they constantly have their hearts in their mouths for fear of being singled out and repudiated.
The work of the DTI was not the end of it, also involved are the Secondary Students Federation (FEEM) and the Young Communists Union (UJC). In morning assemblies and meetings, the leadership of both organizations explained to the young people “the true intentions” of the summer courses and warned them they should reject World Learning if they don’t want to be considered counterrevolutionaries, and in the worst case, lose their chances for higher education and a career.
The president of the FEEM, Suzanne Santiesteban, went a step further and cataloged the rallies against World Learning as “acts of repudiation” in the style of those traditionally made against activists and opposition on the island. The young woman called for extending these actions to schools in Havana, and the “rest of the country.”
However, after the hubbub of public events they have also been subject to pressures in the classroom. “I tried to read what was written to show that there was nothing subversive in those classes, but they gave me a paper with things that I didn’t even know what they meant and forced me to read it out loud in front of everyone,” says one of the young people who traveled to the United States between 2015 and 2016.
“In this program we never talked politics and we were never forced to do anything we didn’t want to do,” he told 14ymedio .
World Learning organized English classes for the Cuban students, along with training in leadership skills such as public speaking, network building and skills a leader can use to connect with others and identify with the aspirations of their collective.
In a statement from the president of the organization, Carol Jenkins, sent to Martí Noticias, she stated that “The program was designed to help students form personal ties between high school students in the United States and Cuba. During the two years, fewer than 100 Cuban teenagers participated in the program in the United States, for one month. They were divided into groups and traveled to communities in Virginia, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Washington, Oregon, and Missouri.”
Jenkins added, “While they were in the communities that hosted them, they volunteered with young Americans in activities such as local food banks, cleaning parks in collaboration with recycling centers, and reading books to young children in youth centers.”
“What they taught us was how to use the internet and things we could do with the technology. But it was never anything violent or anything having to do with politics,” emphasizes the uneasy student.
Another teenager who traveled to the US spoke about the four weeks spent there. “The only thing I regret is not having had the opportunity to stay. Now I realize it was a mistake to come back here,” he says.
In addition to language classes they were told about the history of the United States and taken to historical sites in Washington and other states. They cooperated in the work and lived in the home of a family that welcomed them as a member.
“What’s subversive about that? I still don’t understand,” he says.
Another of his peers is more radical in his statements:
“Me? A traitor? Why? For going to some summer classes with other people from all over the world? Betrayal is making the whole country a prison. Betrayal is everyone who has collaborated on the absurd current system of my country.”
Another of the students involved in the projects recalls, with an almost childlike tone, that when he was in the United States they took him to eat in a restaurant with Cuban food and always considered his opinion.
“They were educated (the teachers). They treated us with a lot of respect, we engaged in participation games to get to know each other, and we became like siblings. They did anonymous surveys to find out what we thought about the program and took our opinions into account in adapting the program so we were more at ease. They hosted us in places and hotels comfortable for young people, they didn’t overwhelm us, and they were concerned about our wellbeing the whole time,” the young man said.
The Cuban government has undertaken a campaign almost like the one that demanded the “liberation” of the child rafter Elian Gonzalez, or the release of the five spies serving prison sentences in the United States. Classroom by classroom and school by school the young people have been called to participate in acts of repudiation and of “revolutionary reaffirmation.”
As a part of the government’s campaign, a special edition of the Roundtable TV show was held with Alejandro Sánchez as a guest, one of the youths who participated in the courses.
The young man explained on camera how the summer school was developed. According to Sánchez, the objective of the program is to foment civil society on the island (during the first session, in 2015, 34 young people participated). “Even many of us participating in the program expressed our concern about the growing politicization,” he said.
Sánchez detailed the “subversive” topics they were taught in the United States, including how democracy works, what life is like in that country and what human rights are.
During the first days of the program, which passed in a villa in Virginia, Sánchez considered it suspicious that, “We could not post pictures or videos of any of the activities we were doing in the program, under the pretext of safeguarding our security and avoiding repression once we returned to our country.”
For the Cuban Government the curriculum seeks to “capture” young people to fabricate “false leadership” and implement change on the island. The main accusation is that World Learning receives funding from USAID.
This newspaper tried to contact one of the US teachers who is a part of the course and who deals, in particular, with the graduates, but the teacher said he was not authorized to give statements to the press.