Make Sure You Help, Not Hurt When Visiting Cuba

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As President Obama declares “Change is going to happen in Cuba,” Global Volunteers President and CEO offers advice to Americans in a widely released editorial:

Cuba is a wonderful country of many contradictions.

It boasts one of the world’s highest literacy rates, yet food is rationed throughout the island.  Its highly educated teachers and lawyers take jobs as tour guides to make ends meet.  Cuban medical teams are dispatched worldwide to train doctors and nurses, yet auto parts can’t be procured to repair Cuba’s vintage American-made cars.

Cuba warmly welcomes millions of visitors each year – without enough hotel rooms to accommodate them.

The U.S. non-profit sector is poised to assist the Cuban people as the country becomes a full member of the international community. And, how Americans regard new travel options should reflect our core values of equality and justice for all.

But will we constructively engage our Cuban neighbors as equals, or reinforce the “Ugly American” stereotype cultivated over history?  It’s here where non-profit people-to-people and service-learning programs can lead other sectors with divergent agendas.

But first, we must resist a “forbidden fruit” mindset of careless curiosity and conspicuous consumption – as if Cuba is an island amusement park just off our southern shore.  If instead, we travel to Cuba with an abundance of respect, open-mindedness and a sincere interest to learn from and about the Cuban people, we can expect the same in return.  It has been my experience that Cubans – both young and old –  are genuinely hopeful for a robust and mutually beneficial relationship between our two countries.  More than that, they’re eager to share their lives and culture with those who are willing to invest themselves in helping them thrive.

Therefore, secondly, we must understand that the “Real Cuba” lies beyond the World Heritage sites and old cars.  To truly know a culture, you must get to know its people.  Working together hand-in-hand enables us to do just that.

It’s natural for the pre-1960 generation to be fascinated by our recollections of the people and country that played a significant role in the political consciousness of our formative years.  And, for Gen-xers and Millennials, the opportunity to explore a formerly “off-limits” country helps shape their understanding of our nation’s global impact.

I’ve been fortunate to spend days and weeks in conversation with, and working alongside, Cuban youth and families on important projects.  These programs enable me – and hundreds of other volunteers – to both experience the day-to-day life of average Cubans and contribute to their future growth and prosperity. Working together, we’re both givers and receivers in equal measure.  And, the best part is –only one or two weeks in genuine service allows us to accomplish so much.

But why are there so few opportunities for Americans to lend a hand to the Cuban people?  Perhaps in the rush to open doors to travel, we’ve overlooked the mutual benefit of volunteerism.

It takes time to develop partnerships founded on trust and understanding.  But in the end, these are the relationships that will serve the Cuban and American people for the long term.  Unchecked American zeal could hurt – rather than help – the Cuban people.  Already, Havana’s hotels and paladars are overbooked and struggling to meet demand.  However, the people in the colorful countryside represent Cuba in a way crowded urban centers cannot.  Commercialism will certainly develop – perhaps much too rapidly for some people’s tastes.  But in the meantime, we have opportunities right now to extend a hand not only in friendship, but in service.

BudPhilbrook- head shotNow is the time to travel to Cuba and serve the Cuban people – and reap what we sow today for decades to come.

Burnham J. Philbrook, Global Volunteers Co-founder

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