Cuba – People to People Cultural Exchange
Land Based Adventures
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If Cuba were a shoe, she would be part of my favorite pair. She has magnetic character and charisma. She is as beautiful, even in her well-worn state, as she is resilient and unbreakable. And she’s a comfortable fit for a traveler of any age, geographic origin, or political persuasion.
Since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, U.S. citizens have been barred by the United States government from visiting Cuba, in observance of the embargo that also makes it illegal for U.S. corporations (or those of its allies) to do business in/with the small island nation that was once a prosperous global trading partner for sugar and tobacco. Since 2011, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has lifted travel restrictions in a limited capacity, allowing a handful of tour companies to operate people-to-people educational exchange programs. These unique programs build full-day itineraries that are focused on interacting with the Cuban people and experiencing their day-to-day lives to learn firsthand about Cuban culture, social customs, religion, and history. These people-to-people programs allow for little free time – however, the tradeoff is a day after day spent experiencing Cuba at its most authentic, through one-on-one talks and in-person visits to a wide variety of social and cultural organizations to meet people of all ages and backgrounds.
From the moment our group of 15 (Americans) arrived by charter flight in Santa Clara, we were met with a warm welcome that never waned during our 8 days traversing the western half of the island, which is roughly the size of the state of Tennessee and located a short 90 miles (1 hour flight) from Miami. Our visits took us from the gorgeous coastal town of Cayo Santa Maria through several small rural towns in central and western Cuba, and finally to the capital city of Havana. A few highlights on our long list of cultural interactions included:
- A dozen live musical performances throughout the week, spanning styles from traditional Cuban classics performed on antique instruments to Afro-Cuban drumming to a talented orchestra of high school students whose 85-year old maestro is the premier trumpet player in the country.
- Visits to several artists’ studios and community projects, including a fascinating tour of and dinner in the home of painter and sculptor Jose Fuster (“Fusterlandia”), who is known as the “Picasso of the Caribbean” for his popular art and his transformation of his local fishing village to a playful and colorful ceramic mosaicked wonderland.
- A conversation with a former Cuban diplomat and foreign services scholar about the Cuban perspective on the history and future of U.S. – Cuba relations.
- A tour of a medical center in Havana, and a terrific conversation with a Cuban physician about the well-regarded public healthcare system and the benefits and challenges of socialized medicine in a country of 11 million people.
- A visit to a working tobacco farm followed by a tour of a popular cigar factory where the world renowned stogies are hand-rolled.
- An evening joy ride in a “yank tank”, and snapping hundreds of photos throughout the week of these classic 1950s (and 1940’s) American automobiles, of which ~60,000 are still on the roads, having been kept running for the last 60+ years with dedicated, imaginative and innovative engineering in the absence of easily accessible spare parts.
A visit to Cuba feels like walking into the pages of a history book. The weathered Spanish colonial architecture creates a beautiful backdrop for the classic cars and the good old-fashioned friendliness of the Cuban people who greeted us over and over with “We’ve been waiting for you” sentiments and excitement to learn our impressions of their charming country.
Of course, any account of a visit to Cuba would be remiss without mention of the poverty level of the people – Cuba is undeniably a poor country. However, despite the challenges of the embargo, the government has managed to provide its citizenry with the basic necessities of food, shelter and employment, so that homelessness, starvation and begging are scarcely seen. While eager to earn higher wages, the Cuban people are not desperate or unhappy. Quite the contrary – it’s possibly the friendliest and most hopeful place I’ve ever been.
To sum it up, Cuba stole my heart. And much like my favorite shoes, I will relish any opportunity to walk and dance with her again soon.