The direct flight from Miami to Havana is disarmingly brief, as I discovered during my first trip there on a Global Volunteers People-to-People program in 2012. After our ascent, we enjoyed just a few minutes at “cruising altitude” before the captain announced our descent into Cuba. It shouldn’t have been surprising since we were only traveling 222 miles, but how could one of our closest neighbors feel like such a far-away land? With the normalization of relations announced by Presidents Obama and Castro, we finally have the opportunity to challenge many absurd assumptions, and there are many US citizens who are more than ready to do so.

Global Volunteers now offers a Service Program in Cuba–the first organization in the United States to do so–with the opportunity to support local people and learn about their lives away from the tourist crowds. As an anthropologist, I teach my students to cultivate a sense of humility, respect toward others, appreciation of difference, and awareness of the complexities of life so that they will not impose their own ideologies of “right” and “wrong” on people from cultures that might be very different from their own. As a volunteer team leader with Global Volunteers for 20 years, I encourage our volunteers to embrace the same values so that we will “do no harm” in the communities where we work. Indeed, with this approach, our teams are invited back year after year as the community members see that we are not there to impose any agenda (political, economic, religious, or otherwise) or profit from them in any way. They see that our objective is to work under the direction of local people and according to their priorities, and to simply lend a hand and enjoy the exchange. And when the program is over, we are all filled with a deeper appreciation and admiration for each other.

music in CubaYes, mojitos are delicious, and Cuban music is unparalleled, but meeting people in their communities, witnessing their daily life, and working with them side-by-side can be truly transformational for everyone involved. Relationships are formed, emotions shared, enduring memories created. And transformation is precisely what is needed right now to heal the wounds created by so many years of suffering and misunderstanding

The Cuba Service Program is a terrific way to help set a new standard of friendship between our two nations. The cold war is finally over. With Global Volunteers, you can be an agent for peace and justice in Cuba.

– Carol Conzelman, Global Volunteers Board Member and Team Leader

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