Humanitarian groups await permission from government to resume trips to island after hiatus.
The last time Craig Heller sent students to Cuba, Bill Clinton was president. With President Barack Obama starting to ease travel restrictions, Cuba is back on Heller’s mind.
Obama announced in April that the United States would loosen rules on travel to Cuba for family members. While travel restrictions haven’t changed for humanitarian groups, there are indications that Obama may reevaluate those, too.
That has Heller, executive director of Fort Meyers-based Global Community Engagement, and other non-profit groups, eying future trips to the island.
Heller hopes to take Florida high school students to Cuba in the near future. In 1999, Heller sent University of Georgia students to Cuba, where they went to concerts and museums and met with other students and learned about language and culture. The trip would offer another perspective on the situation in Cuba. Students would get to see the positive and negative aspects of a communist country.
Global Community Engagement has a group registered to go but is involved in the long process to get permission. The organization sponsors humanitarian projects during spring break, taking middle school, high school and college students to the Dominican Republic to help children.
Heller said Cuba is strict about who foreign volunteers can help when they go there. For the first time, he plans to travel with the high school group because he wants to see Cuba before Fidel and Raul Castro die.
Because Cuba has a communist political system and ideology, it’s difficult to get a realistic picture of life on the island.
“It’s crucial that young people understand that there is more than one perspective to seeing things,” Heller said. Tourists who visit Cuba are likely to stay in the area where hotels are located while residents generally live outside.
“You never hear about the other part of what’s going on in Cuba,” he said.
Juan Pablo Noguera, 46, from Puerto Rico, took his family to Cuba 11 years ago with the goal to see the firsthand story and not the media story.
“On the tourism side, it was like Hollywood,” he said. “You could get everything in the hotels, but outside there was no food. When you go out there you see only poverty.”
His daughter, 18-year-old Natalia Noguera, also noticed the difference between the two areas.
“(In) the hotels, the people from Cuba are dressed pretty,” she said. “It’s perfect, but fake perfect.”
Students visit Cuba for many reasons. Some are second- or third-generation Cubans, while others are simply curious to see it. Students interested in the environment go to observe the island’s nature, preserved by isolation.
Canadian students who travel to Cuba typically do so with their families or with educational and humanitarian groups. They explore the island through their own interests, which vary from photography to environmental studies.
One such group is the PhotoCuba! Workshop.
Every year since February 2005, this group has gone to photograph “the real people of Cuba” for a week.
“(Cuba) is a place where people have been so open to having their picture taken,” said Trina Koster, director of PhotoCuba! Workshop. “I’ve never been anywhere people have been so inviting.”
There’s a variety of age groups who go, ranging from 16 year olds and 18 year olds to retirees. Seventy-year-old Darlene Lamb from Guelph, Canada, has traveled to Cuba twice with the PhotoCuba! Workshop.
“The Cuban people are probably the highlight,” Lamb said. “They share (food) with us even though they don’t have enough themselves.”
Visitors to Cuba may take one extra suitcase. Lamb and those who go on the trip take the extra luggage with art supplies, shoes and hygiene products.
“(Cubans) are so used to not having anything that even if you just give them a toothbrush, they just smile and say thank you, thank you, thank you, gracias!” Lamb said, “It’s kind of sad on our part because we have everything and they don’t.”
The American human rights organization Global Exchange also hopes to resume sending students to Cuba. Global Exchange Reality Tours continues to send professionals to Cuba. But Reality Tours director Malia Everette said students have not been sent since January 1, 2004, after the Bush administration changed the travel policy.
“Graduates want to learn about Afro-Cubans (but) like (high school students) don’t have the constitutional right to travel to Cuba,” Everette said. In 2003, 500 students went to Cuba with various groups. Most trips lasted 10 days.
“You should have the right to see it for yourself,” Everette said. “(They) go and learn about an issue or learn about a theme while they’re there.”
Visits on these trips are set up so that students may see primary and secondary schools. The tour starts in Havana and moves around to different provinces.
Everette said Obama has not done enough.
“He’s changed travel restrictions for those with family, but what about all the other people?” she says.
“Cuba’s not a national security threat. It’s time to think of new ways to engage Cuba.”