Volunteering in Cuba

By George Carter
This item appears on page 31 of the August 2014 issue.
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Reading the Feature Article “Cuba – A Long Weekend in Old Havana(June ’14, pg. 6), I felt the need to compare the author’s experience with our February 2004 visit to Cuba.

Volunteer groups affiliated with nonprofit agencies may visit Cuba. A cursory website search reveals numerous opportunities for volunteer trips. Educational and cultural visits to Cuba are also happening all the time.

Ours was a volunteer experience with United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (New York, NY; 800/862-4246). We flew on a scheduled airline, not a charter flight.

Near Santa Clara, Cuba, my wife and I joined 10 other volunteers for a week of hard work removing what one volunteer (an engineer) estimated was 50 tons of dirt and rock from the hillside next to what would become a swimming pool for local youths. (This was part of a Cuban Methodist campground that would serve children and youth from neighboring communities.)

Since earth-moving equipment would have been impractical, given the steep slope of the hill, we worked with shovels, picks, wheelbarrows and baskets.

We slept in campground dormitories and ate in the camp facility. After our week of work, we spent several days in Havana.

When heading to Cuba, members of our group loaded several bags filled with over-the-counter medical products, some of which were samples given to us by medical professionals in our community and some we had purchased. The products were for community clinic distribution, not for resale.

While in Cuba, my wife and I observed the production process at a cigar factory and purchased a box of cigars for our son-in-law. It is no longer possible to bring Cuban cigars back.*

Like the above-mentioned author, we, too, were cautioned about speaking about political matters with Cubans. This caution was carefully observed. The only exception was with a man we visited at a windy hillside monument. Members of our group were the only people present with him. Our extended discussion about the pros and cons of the US embargo and Cuba’s government, economy, health care and educational systems was highly informative.

I encourage visits to Cuba and other nations and peoples with whom the United States has had a history of antagonism. Our visit was enlightening, and our attitude of trustful encounters and openness lets others know that Americans aren’t all alike.

Our five international volunteer experiences (Cuba, South Africa, Russia, Chile and Spain) and our home exchanges (Switzerland, France, Germany and the UK) have been enhanced through people-to-people contacts that have been elusive when our travels have been with commercial tours, with stays in commercial facilities.

GEORGE CARTER

Nevada City, CA

*From June 19, 1998, until Aug. 1, 2004, US travelers who were licensed to export goods from Cuba were allowed to import $100 in Cuban merchandise, including tobacco, as part of their baggage. Afterward, the US Office of Foreign Assets Control revised these rules. Licensed travelers can still import $100 worth of goods from Cuba, but tobacco products are no longer included in that allowance.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

Reading the Feature Article “Cuba – A Long Weekend in Old Havana(June ’14, pg. 6), I felt the need to compare the author’s experience with our February 2004 visit to Cuba.

Volunteer groups affiliated with nonprofit agencies may visit Cuba. A cursory website search reveals numerous opportunities for volunteer trips. Educational and cultural visits to Cuba are also happening all the time.

Ours was a volunteer experience with United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (New York, NY; 800/862-4246). We flew on a scheduled airline, not a charter flight.

Near Santa Clara, Cuba, my wife and I joined 10 other volunteers for a week of hard work removing what one volunteer (an engineer) estimated was 50 tons of dirt and rock from the hillside next to what would become a swimming pool for local youths. (This was part of a Cuban Methodist campground that would serve children and youth from neighboring communities.)

Since earth-moving equipment would have been impractical, given the steep slope of the hill, we worked with shovels, picks, wheelbarrows and baskets.

We slept in campground dormitories and ate in the camp facility. After our week of work, we spent several days in Havana.

When heading to Cuba, members of our group loaded several bags filled with over-the-counter medical products, some of which were samples given to us by medical professionals in our community and some we had purchased. The products were for community clinic distribution, not for resale.

While in Cuba, my wife and I observed the production process at a cigar factory and purchased a box of cigars for our son-in-law. It is no longer possible to bring Cuban cigars back.*

Like the above-mentioned author, we, too, were cautioned about speaking about political matters with Cubans. This caution was carefully observed. The only exception was with a man we visited at a windy hillside monument. Members of our group were the only people present with him. Our extended discussion about the pros and cons of the US embargo and Cuba’s government, economy, health care and educational systems was highly informative.

I encourage visits to Cuba and other nations and peoples with whom the United States has had a history of antagonism. Our visit was enlightening, and our attitude of trustful encounters and openness lets others know that Americans aren’t all alike.

Our five international volunteer experiences (Cuba, South Africa, Russia, Chile and Spain) and our home exchanges (Switzerland, France, Germany and the UK) have been enhanced through people-to-people contacts that have been elusive when our travels have been with commercial tours, with stays in commercial facilities.

GEORGE CARTER

Nevada City, CA

*From June 19, 1998, until Aug. 1, 2004, US travelers who were licensed to export goods from Cuba were allowed to import $100 in Cuban merchandise, including tobacco, as part of their baggage. Afterward, the US Office of Foreign Assets Control revised these rules. Licensed travelers can still import $100 worth of goods from Cuba, but tobacco products are no longer included in that allowance.