Trips to Panama and Cuba highlight WSP organizational successes, failures

For most Williams students, the thought of Winter Study conjures up images of a frost-covered landscape, the campus glistening underneath a layer of snowy perfection. The ideal is like something out of “The Polar Express,” with students communing in front of mugs of hot chocolate as eight-cylinder sleighs drive by.

Some, however, eschew the copper kettles and warm woolen mittens for something a little less confining. They are given that opportunity by the wide range of course offerings that allow students to leave Williamstown and travel to other, often warmer, climes.

Many departments offer Winter Study away programs, which provide students with nearly a month of immersion in an environments far from chilly western Massachusetts.

Programs exist as close as the New York City public school system, where Williams students have served as teaching assistants, and as far away as Greece and Nicaragua.

Two new programs offered this Winter Study – “Panama: Leadership at the Crossroads of the World” and “Cuban Music and Dance” – reveal both the incredible opportunity these trips offer for students and the potential pitfalls of establishing programs in different environments, often under vastly different political conditions.

Both programs are expensive, which is expected for programs outside of the country. The stated cost for “Panama” was $1,775, and the outlay for “Cuban Music and Dance” was $2,800. With price tags that could preclude some Williams students from attending, a number of students were concerned about the prospect their fellow classmates being literally left out in the cold. Eric Kerns ’03, who went on the Panama trip, felt that the high fee was a concern.

“It’s definitely something you think about after you pay so much to be in such a nice place, and that’s an issue for a lot of people,” said Kerns. “It’s sort of inevitable that it’s going to be expensive, but it’s not ideal.”

“Panama” offered under the heading of Leadership Studies, gave students firsthand exposure to the mechanics of a developing nation and required them to discuss topics as varied as political science, history, engineering, economics and archaeology. The course offered students unparalleled access to the upper echelons of the Panamanian governmental and business structure.

Appropriately, the group was based out of the “Ciudad del Saber,” or the City of Knowledge, a research center and university space located on the site of a former U.S. military base used during the nation’s administration of the Panama Canal for most of the twentieth century. The “Ciudad,” located only three miles from Panama City on the Pacific coast, served as a residential hub for the Williams students and an organizational center for the program, as the staff of the facility helped the group arrange for many of their appointments with the small nation’s politicians and businesspeople.

George Goethals, chair of the psychology department and one of the co-sponsors of the program (along with James Mahon, associate professor of political science), credited the help of their Panamanian hosts in making the first-time program effective. “They really opened a lot of doors for us,” he said. “It was tremendous how they had all the places for us to stay and worked really hard to make everything go smoothly.”

Perhaps another reason that the Williams delegation was treated so well was Goethals’ own ancestry. His great-grandfather was Colonel George Washington Goethals, the Army Corps of Engineers’ chief engineer of the Panama Canal project in the early twentieth century, who was instrumental in revitalizing the flagging effort. According to Sean Gillespie ’04, such is the fame of the Goethals name in Panama that “Wherever you’d go, everyone would know the name Goethals, and that’s all you’d have to say.” Goethals agreed, calling the recognition “some kind of miracle.”

That kind of recognition secured the students access to some of the highest people in the country’s government and society. Students enjoyed a three-day overview of the canal itself, including meetings with the administration and staff of the Canal Authority, and were able to undergo a full transit of the waterway. Along with opportunities to meet with many high-ranking officials in Panama’s parliament and foreign ministry, the students were introduced to important figures from the nation’s past. The most notable of these individuals could be Roberto Eisenmann, the co-founder of one of the country’s first independent newspapers, La Prensa. Eisenmann, who founded the independent publication during the dictatorship of Manuel Noriega, found both himself and his business constantly attacked by the regime and lived in constant fear of governmental reprisal for straying from the tone of official propaganda.

“It’s amazing to meet someone who really put his neck on the line for what he believed in, and for us to be able to talk to him now,” said Gillespie.

Despite some initial uncertainties upon arrival and some minor confusion with transportation and accommodations, Goethals and the students were delighted with the outcome of the program. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime. I still can’t believe that I went on this trip, it seems so amazing to me,” said Kerns.

Goethals was similarly bullish on the end result, and vowed to return to Panama next year with a program of even wider scope. “Now that we’ve established the leadership program, and we have a stable connection, we can get more faculty involved. There are tons of ecological and environmental issues to be studied, and I know that [the] biology [department] is interested in coming down here,” Goethals said. Although he sees room for expansion, Goethals was satisfied with the first-year program.

“There was a little uncertainty at first, but it was only little things. We got the big things right,” Goethals said.

It might be difficult for the “Cuban Dance and Music” program to make a similar claim.

The program was offered through the music department under the guidance of Ernest Brown, associate professor of music, and Ileana Perez Velasquez, assistant professor of music. The course description proposed “to take students to Cuba to study Afro-Cuban music and dance.” The students were to study with Afro-Cuba, “a renowned folkloric performance ensemble” whose history dates back to 1957. Unfortunately, the Williams contingent’s connection to the Afro-Cuba group, which was initiated over the Internet, proved to be a fraud when the group landed in Cuba. Furthermore, the travel agent’s claims of having booked accommodations were equally false. Velasquez, a native of Cuba, and KweYao Agypon, artist-in-residence at Williams, related the unfortunate and unexpected situation when they met the group at the Havana airport.

However, Velasquez was able to use her knowledge of the country’s cultural arts programs to design a completely new program for the students at the National School of Music (NSM) in conjunction with the Cuban Ministry of Culture in little more than a day. Velasquez attended the institution for high school, and helped to arrange for NSM to accommodate all the artistic n
eeds of the Williams students including seminars in voice, percussion/drums, guitar, and dance.

The school, with help from the Cuban Endowment for the Arts, created a comprehensive program consisting of six classes for the twenty-two students in the program: two classes each on drum and dance and one each for guitar and voice. Jason Lucas, a senior and musician in the Kusika program, was effusive in praising the hosts’ organization.

“You have to think that they needed to organize a package, get us all teachers, instruments, classrooms, even translators, organize lectures. . .they really bent over backward to accommodate us,” Lucas said.

“I can’t say enough about our Cuban hosts. . .they did a hell of a job on no notice,” agreed Brown.

The program paired many of the students, particularly those in the dance program, with Cuban counterparts of similar ages in their respective fields. The pairs would meet daily for six days a week for four hours each day, which offered a unique educational opportunity.

Emily Isaacson ’04, liked the pairing system, which “allowed you to learn, not even just first-hand, but from a peer. That, and you got to sort of bond with someone your own age who has been doing this for such a long time. It’s just amazing.”

While the makeshift program was carried out to unqualified acclaim, a number of political obstacles arose in the path of the students, including a situation in which the students’ visas were not the correct type. The visas were obtained by Brown on the recommendation of Cuban Interest Section in Washington, but were found to be invalid for all the members in the troupe after the program at the NSM had commenced. Each member in the group was forced to purchase a new student visa at additional cost, in addition to money already spent. The unfriendly diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, which caused the Cuban authorities to demand the group members to hand over their passports, further complicated the process. The group was able to avoid handing over their papers only by paying an additional fee.

Until the very end of the trip, that cost was borne by the program’s Cuban hosts, who incurred hefty fees rather than face the prospect of the group’s deportation. However, the leaders of the Williams group met with officials in the Cuban Ministry of Culture and were able to persuade them to drop the fees.

“Myself, KweYao, Ileana [Velasquez] and two student representatives were able to convince them to drop the fees. They would have used up all their money, their budget for instruments and everything on us, and that wasn’t right,” said Brown.

Also, additional controversy surrounding the initial sub-standard lodgings for the students lent the program an air of disorganization, which aggravated many of the participants.

“There was a lot of tension the entire trip because of [these problems],” said Isaacson, “and the idea that there was never a fixed cost wasn’t good.”

“A lot of us were sort of unnerved,” agreed Lucas. “We put a lot of trust in the staff, and things were all happening at the last minute.”

Brown attributed many of the program’s problems to the stormy relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, saying, “You try and do one simple thing, and you’re involved in the whole situation.”

“There’s room for people who are less than reputable to operate, because they fill a gap,” he said. “It can be incredibly frustrating and difficult, and in the beginning, everyone was just pissed off,” he said.

In the end, Brown emphasized the positive results of the program. “We’ve gone through the fire, and come out the other side,” he said.

Without question, the students on the trip felt the same way. “If I could do it again, I would. . .the music, the dancing, the drumming, all of it was absolutely priceless, ” said Lucas.

“We were able to meet such a diverse group of people, both the Cubans and within our own group, see another culture. . .I would love to go back again,” said Isaacson.

All the students on the trip praised the bonding aspect of the trip, as the group became quite close over its month-long visit in Cuba. “Honestly, I can’t think of a single person on the trip that I didn’t have a long, meaningful conversation with, and that makes all the difference,” said Morenikeji Adebayo ’04.