Monday, April 30, 2012

Delaware Travel Agency Organizes Trips

Travel agency to host food-focused tours of Cuba

NEWARK, Del. (AP) — Just 90 miles from the coast of the United States lies a land few Americans have seen. Bob Older says he has found a way to get them there.
Starting in August, this Newark-area travel agency owner will begin hosting regular trips to Cuba, the communist country that American tourists have been forbidden from visiting for 50 years. Working through a U.S. Treasury Department program called People-to-People, Older has won permission to lead culinary tours of the island nation, using food as a bridge to bring the two long-separated people together.
Just don't expect any wild Havana nights on this vacation.
To earn the right to lead the eight-day Cuba tours, Older had to show the feds that the trips booked through Creative Travel "will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba," and that "all participants will have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities." Older's itinerary was vetted by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, and in fact was rejected once for being short on "interactive" purposes.
"It's a strict program and a strict process," Older said.
People-to-People — instituted by President Clinton, killed by President Bush and revived by President Obama — typically is used for trips that promote more idealistic endeavors than eating, such as religion or education. So Older crafted his trips to explore the economic facets of the island's food "industry" — how Cuba has begun to allow private restaurant ownership; or how availability of food may differ between the two countries.
"The People-to-People program is designed to create interaction between the people," Older said.
Of course, in this case, it will involve a lot of eating as well. Along with visits to restaurants and interviews with chefs and proprietors, the trip will include stops at an urban farm, a swing through Havana's largest and oldest market, and possibly a tour of a sugar mill, said Older, who has a background in the food business and is a self-described foodie.
There won't be any trinket-gathering or lavish spending, however. Under the program, visitors can spend a maximum of $191 a day on food and lodging, limiting Older's lodging selections. "There's a lot of red tape to go through," he said. "It took me about six months to go through the whole process. It's a lot of work."
Each monthly tour will include a minimum of 20 and a maximum of 26 people. The eight-day package, including 19 meals and hotel accommodations, is $2,399, and the flight from Miami to Havana is $449. Travel to Miami is not included in the package.
"Everyone but Americans have been going there for the past 50 years," Older said. "It's a country that is changing. It's a country that has a whole lot of changing to do."
Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del.,

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A High School Trip

You Went Where For Spring Break?! Students Develop Global Competence in Cuba

"I have long believed, as have many before me, that peaceful relations between nations requires understanding and mutual respect between individuals." - President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Founder of People to People International

For many high school students, taking a spring break vacation can be somewhat of a rite of passage. Spending time with family and friends is a respite from their studies and a chance to find a bit of carefree space in their lives. When I was a teacher, my students would often return to my classroom with stories of beaches, amusement parks, family reunions, or relaxing “staycations,” where they just spent time hanging out at home. For the teachers of 38 high school students around the United States, the stories they heard upon their return to school last month sounded very different. These students told tales of architecture dating back to the early 1900s, automobiles from the 1950s, negotiating the use of a different language and currency, while experiencing a culture rich in tradition and unmarked by Starbucks or McDonald’s. They shared stories of new friendships and a deeper understanding and appreciation for what it means to be a citizen of the United States and the world. In fact, their spring break was not quite a break.

People to People International (PTPI) organized an educational and cultural program for two delegations of American high school students to go to Cuba, a unique opportunity that few American adults have experienced. Founded in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, PTPI promotes international understanding and friendship through educational, cultural, and humanitarian activities while emphasizing personal diplomacy and nongovernmental contacts among people. Eisenhower realized the importance of uniting ordinary citizens from different countries to foster understanding and respect. He believed that, in particular, by bringing youth together from different countries, they would be more likely to overcome ideological differences and, ultimately, not succumb to war.

The Cuba trip was made possible through a special people-to-people license granted by the U.S. Treasury Department, Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC). (Officially licensed travel is currently the only legal way for U.S. residents to visit Cuba.) The program was designed to provide students a rare glimpse into the country’s rich history, as well as a chance to meet with the Cuban people.

I was honored to lead such a special delegation. The experience was framed in a way that develops student global competency. Global competence is the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance. More specifically, it involves them investigating the world, In a purposeful, inquiry-based design, each activity gave them opportunities to apply these skills in authentic settings, taking full advantage of the rich and dynamic Cuban culture that still remains a mystery to many Americans today.

The students were given four questions to consider: 1) what do you want to know? 2) how will you find answers? 3) how do you share information? and 4) now what? I will outline the process below, with real examples from the Cuban study trip, so you may apply the same experiential learning in different contexts. This exercise that helps build student global competence can work in local school communities just as it does on a study abroad trips.

What Do You Want to Know?

Prior to leaving for Cuba, students divided into research teams based on their own interests. The teams focused on arts and culture, the environment, social welfare, religion, and education. Daily life in Cuba and the experiences of the people there was somewhat of an unknown going into this program, yet provided an opportunity to pose engaging questions to understand the context of where they were going. Because the students live in different parts of the United States, they met via conference calls and used social media to begin their research. This served as a powerful example of how technology can bridge geographic and cultural divides. Students in innovative schools today are already networking, talking, and collaborating with their peers, many of whom they may not have ever met in person. The students faced challenges when collecting information about their topic; they questioned the accuracy of the information they found, whether it was on the Internet or through conversations with adults. Being critical consumers of their information is an essential part of investigating the world and weighing perspectives.

Inquiry-based projects reveal many layers of questions. Once on the ground in Cuba, the research teams collectively honed in on several research questions to guide their study. For example, the team focusing on social welfare had heard a great deal about the high quality and free access to health care provided to Cuban citizens. They framed their research to answer the question, “What makes the Cuban health care system so good?” The arts and culture group decided to focus on how Cuban artists used their art to express themselves and their beliefs about social realities. These were not research questions I assigned. My role involved pushing student thinking to deeper levels by helping them get beyond yes or no or other easily answerable questions. They rose to the challenge. Students owned the learning and guided the direction their research would take.

How will you find answers?

The teams were challenged to design a data collection plan for their research questions. Each team reviewed the itinerary, which included a visit to a church, organic farm, and a day care center, among other stops. The teams had to determine who would provide them with the best and most accurate information about their topic. We discussed how to conduct interviews, strategies for making observations and how to enter into conversations with local citizens in a way that was appropriate and welcoming. The students quickly realized that approaching people with a notebook in hand asking a bunch of questions could be intimidating! Instead, each team developed an interview protocol and decided what role each team member would take in the process. For example, not all of the students spoke Spanish, so those students who were more fluent quickly emerged and helped facilitate dialogue with the locals who did not speak English.

It’s worth mentioning here that we were welcomed quite warmly by the citizens of Cuba wherever we went. Their natural curiosity and interest in learning about the United States and what our impressions about their country were palpable. What was also evident throughout our interactions was the tremendous pride they all held for their culture and history. Politics aside, our students engaged them in conversations about their hopes, dreams, and desires for the future. In addition to the formal stops on our itinerary, it was not uncommon to see small groups of the students just hanging out in the lobby of our hotel talking to waiters, the concierge, and anyone else they thought could provide interesting perspectives on their topic. When given the license and purpose, students found that anyone and everyone served as a potential source of information and could provide new insights or an avenue to investigate. These ongoing conversations compelled students to examine Cuban perspectives and weigh those perspectives against their own.

How will you share this information?

It was important to provide time for the students to make sense of what they heard and learned each day. Each team developed group norms on how they would meet, talk, and help each other through their research project. Through whole-group team-building activities and discussions, we created a time for students to share and talk freely about their thoughts, questions, and concerns. In small groups, another dedicated time, they reviewed their notes, discussed new learning from the day, and posed new questions that needed to be answered in an effort to address their research questions. It was not unusual to see one team share information with another team if they had collected information pertinent to their topic.

In an attempt to help students synthesize everything they had learned, we engaged them in a debate towards the end of the program regarding the U.S. Embargo: “Should the embargo and travel restrictions be lifted? Why or why not?” This led to a lively debate between the two sides, each offering compelling examples and rationale based on what they had learned throughout the program. Their level of analysis of the situation, the benefits and drawbacks of such a policy and the human impact were amazing indications of their growth over the course of the week. This type of learning could never be measured on a standardized test.

Now what?

Throughout the week, we revisited the concept of global competence. The students had, in fact, investigated the world, recognized perspectives, and communicated ideas very successfully. However, we didn’t want this learning to end with them and in this location.

As the culminating aspect of the program, the teams were asked to develop a plan of advocacy or action. Because they had been afforded this unique experience to visit a country that so few Americans have really been able to experience, there was almost an obligation to share this information with their families, school community, and the broader American audience. Each team devised a plan for how they would share their learning and experience to a broader community. Websites, blog posts, letters to local and state representatives, and public presentations were just some of the student plans. The overarching goal in each seemed to be focused on educating the American public about life in Cuba, while dispelling some of the myths and confirming some of the challenges that still exist there.

Implications for the Field

Travel provides one of the most authentic, eye-opening opportunities for students to step out of their comfort zone, challenge their perspectives and develop new understanding of others. This is best demonstrated by the reflections of three students:

"I had thought that I had a good understanding of Cuba before I went because I did a research project on it in world issues class. Once I landed in Cuba I noticed that I hadn't taken into consideration the culture, and overall mood of the country that you can only get by being on the ground and breathing the same air." – Mary (Cincinnati, Ohio, USA)

"Traveling to Cuba completely changed my outlook toward life. Visiting a foreign country that is totally different from America allowed me to gain new insight on a completely different world. Everything I experienced in Cuba I relate back to life in America, which helps me realize how fortunate we all are". – Travis (Lubbock, Texas, USA)

"It was all so unique and very interesting experiencing a culture that is so close physically but so distant culturally. The trip also gave me insight into myself and helped me realize how my assumptions and stereotypes of things such as Cuba are often wrong. Overall it was a life-changing experience!" – Julien (Wever, Iowa, USA)

True to the mission set forth by President Eisenhower when he founded PTPI, these students represented their country with distinction, helping to foster stronger ties and good will internationally. In some cases, they have done it better than we have as adults.

In these tough economic times, travel of this nature may not be an option for all students or schools. It is critical that as educators, we find other ways to expose students to different cultures, and to get them outside of the classroom and interacting in meaningful ways with people different than themselves. Taking an inquiry stance in our classrooms is one of the only ways we can truly engage students, increase student motivation, and develop self-reliance.

Just as important as the travel component is the power of allowing students choice in their learning and allowing them to guide that learning. As the teacher, I set out broad parameters for the activities, but they drove where the conversations went, how they worked as teams, and controlled how they demonstrated their learning. In the end, there was no doubt in my mind that they left with a deeper understanding of the culture and history of Cuba, while developing interpersonal and personal skills along the way.

It is my hope in sharing this experience to provide a model for teachers and schools to follow with their students. It does not require you to take students to Cuba to engage them in an authentic, inquiry-based learning experience. The same process outlined above can be applied in your local setting, exploring issues and topics relevant to your community. It does require, however, that you provide them multiple opportunities to engage in and with the world in meaningful ways.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Arizona Chamber of Commerce Tour Expands

Gilbert Chamber-sponsored trips to Cuba a hot ticket

The trips to Cuba sponsored by the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce are so popular throughout the state that 40 more seats have been added in addition to the 55 that have been sold.
"We have travelers from several communities across the state, including Sun City, Surprise, Anthem, Cave Creek, Tucson, Flagstaff, several from Phoenix, and even a couple from Nevada," chamber spokeswoman Sarah Watts told The Republic. "We have received an overwhelmingly positive response with little criticism. Tourism is not new to Cuba -- but travel to Cuba is new to Americans."
Two "Discover Cuba" expeditions will depart Oct. 2 and Oct. 16 and cost $3,799 per person based on double occupancy; $600 single traveler supplement. The package includes round trip, nonstop air from Los Angeles to Havana, eight nights in first-class hotels, 21 meals, sightseeing excursions, Cuba entry visa, Cuban medical insurance, and all taxes and fuel surcharges.
A no-obligation informational session about the trip will be at 5:30 p.m. April 26 at chamber headquarters, 119 N. Gilbert Road.
While travel to Cuba has been open to international travel, this is the first time in almost 50 years that U.S. travelers have been able to visit.
"I think part of the popularity of this trip is the opportunity to experience a country that has long been off limits," Watts said. "I think it is also appealing to travelers that the trip is organized by a reputable travel company, Chamber Explorations, and travelers can trust that the trip has been well planned. ...The experience will be true to the culture with outings that will expose travelers to local artists and craft workers and to sites that will share Cuba's history from Cuba's point of view."
To learn more or to register for the informational meeting, contact Watts at 480-892-0056, Ext. 104, or e-mail View the itinerary at

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Bike Tours Bloom Despite OFAC

Bicycle tours in Cuba hit top gear

CUBA_0424 Foreign bicyclists near Holguin, Cuba; copyright Christopher P Baker.JPG
In recent months I’ve consulted with several U.S.-based tour companies that wish to offer group bicycle tours of Cuba. To do so requires a special license for “people-to-people educational exchange” from OFAC (the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control), which oversees travel to and financial transactions with Cuba.
So far, OFAC has proven unwilling to contemplate bicycle travel as a viable means of cultural interaction, and to that end has denied applications that focus on cycling.
Nonetheless, you frequently come across U.S. citizens cycling in Cuba, alongside scores of Europeans doing the same.
More noticeably, this past year I’ve witnessed an explosion of cycling groups touring the island.
Here are the most prominent players:
This U.K.-based company offers two week-long cycling itineraries: The Central Cuba Bike Ride and the Western Cuba Bike Ride. It uses its own fleet of more than 120 imported bikes and has its own Havana office.
This family-run Canadian company is a branch of MacQueen’s Island Tours, based in British Columbia. It has specialized incycle tours to Cuba since 1994. It, too, has an office in Havana, staffed by Kristen MacQueen. It offers one-week bicycle tours December through March, plus an annual “Vuelta Cuba”—a two-week trip from Santiago de Cuba to Havana—in January.
Another Canadian company, CanBiCuba, also offers group bicycle tours.
U.K.-based Exodus also has a 15-day circuit of the island, end to end.
As easy as it may be for U.S. citizens to fly to Cuba via Canada, Mexico, or another third country, and then to participate in such tours, it’s important to note that it is not legal for U.S. citizens to participate in any tours of Cuba (or otherwise travel there) unless they are licensed to do so by OFAC.
WowCuba has an information page called “U.S. Tour Participants” that provides illuminating information. The text includes this: “For those interested in pursuing licensed travel to Cuba, restrictions have been relaxed to include a General License category as well as specific licenses for educational, professional and religious travel.”
However, this is misleading. Any such licensed travel requires that travelers issued such a license adhere to the activities for which they specifically were granted a license, and are not free to saddle up on a bicycle!
I provide complete information about bicycling and travel in Cuba (including licensing for U.S. citizens) in my Moon Cuba.
For further information on Havana, buy Moon Spotlight Havana.
Buy an autographed hardback copy of Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro's Cuba direct from the author.
Looking for the perfect coffee-table book gift item? Buy an autographed hardback copy of Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles direct from the author.
Disclosure: I occasionally accept free or discounted travel when it coincides with my editorial goals. However, my opinion is never for sale.
The opinions you see in Cuba & Costa Rica Journal are my unbiased reflection of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Learn more about Christopher P. Baker.
Copyright © Christopher P. Baker


OFAC's arrogance

Posted by jmcauliff on April 21, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Very useful information about totally people to people bike trips and a reminder that the Office of Foreign Assets Control is following an absurd policy that has little to do with US interests, the intention of the President, or the human rights of Americans.
The Obama administration has left in place a Bush appointee as head of OFAC, Adam Szubin.
Not surprisingly, his tenure is characterized by lack of transparency as well as arbitrary, inconsistent and politicized judgments.
US citizens who choose to travel without a license are morally as legitimate as African Americans who chose to disregard Jim Crow laws and regulations in the southern states. Cuban Americans can not legitimately be the only people entitled to general licenses for non-tourist travel.
Independent travelers seem reasonably safe legally. Appeals of OFAC rulings froze the system and led to non-enforcement against individual visitors since the last year of the Bush Administration.
Should Mitt Romney win the Presidency, the situation could change but widescale ongoing non-cooperation poses practical problems for retroactive punishment, regardless of promises made to Miami extremists.
During the campaign, the President must be under pressure from those who favor freedom of travel as he certainly will be from those who don't.
John McAuliff
Fund for Reconciliation and Development

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Greater Louisville Inc. Launches Trip

Take Advantage of a Rare Chance to Explore Cuba!

Greater Louisville Inc Trip to CubaThe 9-day, 8-night DISCOVER CUBA adventure trip, sponsored by the Greater Louisville Inc. and travel partner Chamber Explorations, is one of the hottest tickets in town. And with limited seating, it’s likely selling out fast. It’s a chance to do something few of us have had the opportunity to do—thanks to a recently-resurrected program known as people-to-people experience. First offered in 1999, people-to-people licenses have not been issued since 2003. A recent executive order this past year re-opened the door.
While tourism is not new to Cuba, travel to Cuba is new to most Americans. It’s your chance to experience a country that has long been off limits. This all-inclusive, well-planned cultural exploration will be true to the local culture with outings that will expose travelers to artists and craft workers and to sites that will share Cuba’s history from Cuba’s point of view. See Old Havana, Sugar Mill Valley, Partagas Cigar Factory, Finca La Vigia (Hemingway’s home), Pinar del Mar, Bay of Pigs, Cuban Literacy Museum, Cuban School/Day Care, and visit the world heritage cities of Cienfuegos and Trinidad. And these are just a few of the scheduled stops on the trip itinerary.
To access the full trip itinerary, click here.
By traveling with Chamber Explorations, you are licensed and authorized to travel to Cuba. Chamber Explorations programs operate under a specific license granted to us by the United States Department of Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Prior to your departure to Cuba, you will receive a copy of our travel license and a letter of authorization granting you permission to travel under that license.
“We will be flying non-stop from Miami International Airport on August 30 on a chartered jet.” Said Michael Iacovazzi-Pau, GLI’s Manager of Global Engagement. “One plane has already been filled, but we’ve still got seats left on a second.”
So move quickly if you’re interested in this terrific, limited-time opportunity to visit Cuba.
Questions? Visit the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page on GLI’s website or call Michael Iacovazzi-Pau at 502-625-0070.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Music Exchange by Oswego State

photo provided Eric Schmitz

Easing embargo allows music exchange

Oswego State faculty, student travel to Cuba for educational study

Music professor Eric Schmitz and undergraduate student Nate Felty spent a week in Cuba from March 31 through April 7 studying Afro-Cuban music with renowned music professor Emilio Del Monte.
The two were able to travel to Cuba due to loosened regulations regarding travel that previously required all travel for educational purposes to count for credit.
Throughout their week in Cuba, Schmitz and Felty completely immersed themselves in Cuban music, seeing music performances and receiving three hour- long lessons from Del Monte daily.
“[In Havana] you can find live music everywhere.” Schmitz said.
The two would pick which restaurants to eat at based on the live bands they heard from each one.
“The only time when it looked like we couldn’t find live music was Good Friday,” Schmitz said.
When the pope had visited Cuba the previous week, the Cuban government allowed for Good Friday to be a national holiday, so there was no live music in the restaurants anymore.
“But on the way back to the hotel, we actually heard some music and had to turn around,“ Felty said. “We caught the band mid-rehearsal practicing in their house. People were crowding up against the windows to listen.”
Schmitz, who specializes in percussion, explained the idea behind this project.
“Cuba is really one of the hot spots for percussion in the world,” Schmitz said. “Cuba’s a really interesting place because it’s difficult to do things without personal connections.”
Schmitz had met a fellow musician in Cuba during his last visit at a restaurant, and this musician recommended that Schmitz meet with his teacher, Emilio Del Monte.
Although Schmitz was unable to study with Del Monte at the time, he maintained an interest in another trip to Cuba. He spoke with his student, Felty, about the possibility of going to Cuba earlier this year, and the two later decided to apply for a grant to make the trip possible.
Felty explained what he was able to accomplish on this trip. “I’ve got enough material from 18-20 hours of lessons we had to study for decades,” Felty said. “I got more out of the first day I was there than I expected out of the whole week.”
Felty is pursuing a career in music performance as a percussionist.
“I’d only known a handful of styles when I came down, and I just took notes every day from what my professor was saying,” Felty said. “There’s enough information in each day of notes for me to dissect for a year.”
It was only after they began studying with Del Monte that they realized how prominent a musician he was. If there was a who’s who of Cuban music, Del Monte has played and recorded with everyone.
“Literally, he has played with pretty much everybody, and knows all of them,” Schmitz said.
Schmitz and Felty will be presenting what they learned and performing on Quest Day in Campus Center 208 at 10:15 a.m.
The trip to Cuba was funded by a grant from the Research and Individualized Student Experiences (RISE) at Oswego State. With Schmitz’s guidance, Felty wrote a proposal for their research and applied for the Student/Faculty Collaborative Challenge Grant. According to the ORSP, the purpose of this grant is “to promote and support true student/faculty scholarly collaboration.”
The OSRP offers a number of different grants for faculty and students, both individually and collaboratively. They are in the process of moving the responcibility to another office, Research and Individualized Student Experiences (RISE). Schmitz, who also works on the committee that reviews proposals, recommended that any student interested in partaking in a similar project of their own find a faculty member at Oswego State that has connections to the country they are seeking to travel to.
“A good place to start is the Office of International Education, because they work closely with faculty members and know who goes to what countries,” Schmitz said.
Although the Student/Faculty Collaborative Challenge Grant can be used for international travel, there are a wide range of domestic projects that it is used for.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Arcadia University Semester Program

The College of Global Studies at Arcadia University is proud to announce the establishment of the Arcadia in Cuba study abroad program starting Spring 2013. The program is delivered in academic collaboration with the prestigious University of Havana. 

The University of Havana, founded in 1728, is Cuba's premier institution of higher education with 7,000 undergraduate and graduate students and 15 
major departments in the humanities, social sciences and sciences. The 
University of Havana is the largest and most renowned university in Cuba and it offers some of the best learning opportunities to U.S. students together with Cuban students. 

“We are broadening and deepening our scope of studies related not only to 
U.S.-Cuba relations but also Latin America and the Caribbean. The learning opportunities are many, both inside and outside the classroom,” said Dr. Dennis Dutschke, Founding Academic Dean of The College of Global Studies.

Highlights of the programs include:
  *  The Arcadia study abroad program in Cuba is a full-immersion program 
where all courses are taught in Spanish alongside Cuban students.
  *  The core course, Cuban-American Relations: Past and Present, is taught by the Deputy Director of the Center for Hemispheric and Cuban-American Studies at UH, focusing on U.S.-Cuban relations and history.
 *  In addition to the core course and a Spanish language course, students will be able to choose elective courses from the vast array offered by the University of Havana, in any departments of the university.

These study abroad offerings in Cuba will enable students to explore the 
fascinating way of life in the vibrant city of Havana, with its eclectic mix of Latin, European and American cultures, while earning credits towards their undergraduate degrees.

For more information about this exciting new opportunity in Cuba, please visit our website at or contact Francisco Aragón-Guiller at

Dr. Dennis Dutschke, Founding Academic Dean
The College of Global Studies
Arcadia University

Monday, April 9, 2012

Brown University Semester Program

The Office of International Programs at Brown University is pleased to
announce that it still  has a few limited spaces available for its
fall 2012 study abroad program in Havana, Cuba.

Since 2008, Brown has been offering this engaging academic program in
affiliation with Casa de Las Américas, Cuba's premier research
institution on Caribbean and Latin American studies, Cuban culture and
the arts.   Casa de las Américas and Brown have worked closely
together to develop a truly unique program of study that challenges
students to achieve a critical understanding of the key issues facing
Cuba today, and enables them to interact with some of the country’s
leading academic experts in the social sciences, arts and the
humanities.  Please see

Students will have opportunities to immerse themselves in the host
country, taking in lectures from recognized experts on key issues
facing the country, and interacting with peers who share their
intellectual curiosity about Cuba’s past, present and future.  All
classes are taught in Spanish.

For more information, please contact Mike Rini, Study Abroad
Coordinator at:, or (401) 863-3873.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce


Undiscovered country

Santa Monicans prepare to visit Cuba

Classic American cars are a common sight in Cuba because of the embargo, but if you visit don't expect to spend your time ogling them. The feds only want Americans visiting Cuba if they have meaningful, educational interactions with Cubans. Rapping about carburetors probably won't cut it. photo by Goggle images.
April 07, 2012
CITYWIDE — Dixie Vanderloop doesn't often hang out at the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce offices on Sixth Street on a Thursday night, but this week was an exception.

She came to watch a slide show presentation on Cuba, a small country with a big history that was finally open to her, if only she could get a spot on the tour.

Never mind the irony of an organization representing the capitalist business community helping to arrange a trip to one of the world's last remaining Communist outposts.

Three such tours are leaving Santa Monica this year, one through the chamber and the other two through the nonprofit WISE & Healthy Aging, and the spots are going faster than the country's famous cigars in an unguarded humidor.
One of the trips through WISE & Healthy Aging is already filled up, and Vanderloop wanted to see what the chamber had to offer.

"I don't know anything about it," she said. "I like that [the country is] not commercialized or Americanized."

For many, the popularity stems from the fact that United States policy has prohibited Americans from hopping a direct flight to Cuba, said Afrodite Pastroumas, district sales manager for Chamber Explorations, the company that is coordinating the trips.

Chamber Explorations only recently received a license to take groups to the foreign land, and it's already booked organizations through October. The first of its tour groups returned to the United States on Friday.

"If you tell someone 'You can't go,' they want to go that much more," Pastroumas said.

Chamber trips run around $3,800 for nine days with airfare, travel visa, health insurance, first-class hotel, tours, transportation and all but three meals included.

Levitan Center
Despite its diminutive size and neighborly proximity, Cuban-American relations have only just begun to thaw after more than 50 years of tension.

In 1960, the United States government under President Dwight D. Eisenhower slammed the door on the tiny island nation after the recently-Communist country expropriated American holdings on its soil.

The product of that embargo is visible on the streets of Havana, where American cars from a bygone era trundle around on replacement parts imported from Russia and fashioned to fit the old engines.

Travel between the two neighbors has been limited primarily to human rights groups, missionaries and those with family still living under the Castro regime.

That changed drastically in January 2011 when President Barack Obama announced that the Treasury Department would once again issue "people to people" licenses that allow ordinary Americans to take a bite of the forbidden fruit under controlled circumstances.

Companies like Chamber Explorations could apply for the licenses to take tours directly from the United States to Cuba on chartered planes for the first time since former President George W. Bush suspended the program during his time in office.

You can't just apply for a license and expect to lounge on one of Cuba's fabled beaches, however.

There are strict guidelines that companies have to meet to prove that their clients are getting more out of the trip than a romp through a strange land, said Jeff Braunger, licensing expert with the Treasury Department.

"We look at the types of activities they want to do, and they have to give us some detailed examples and explain these activities and how they will result in meaningful interactions between U.S. travelers and the residents of Cuba," Braunger said.

Only 127 organizations hold licenses to travel to Cuba, Braunger said. A New York Times article published June 30, 2011 reported there were only eight companies issued people-to-people licenses. Clearly, Cuba has become a trendy destination.

Simply scheduling a trip to a museum doesn't make muster, but going there and getting an interview with the director of the institution to get a deeper understanding of the people's history and culture might.

Those hopping on the plane to Cuba with Chamber Explorations will tour historic cathedrals, examine tobacco fields and watch workers roll cigars in a local factory.

A trip to the Cojimar Fishing Village will reveal the inspiration for Nobel prize-winning author Ernest Hemmingway's "Old Man and the Sea," and a voyage to the Playa Giron — also known as the Bay of Pigs — will provide an alternate history to an oft-told story of the United States' botched invasion.

It all intrigues Tish Tisherman, the events coordinator who found the trip for the Chamber of Commerce.

"I would love to go and see what we've been deprived of, and what we haven't been seeing for years," Tisherman said.

So did the membership.

"We were originally only going to go to Spain and Tuscany," Tisherman said. "When the information came out that we could go to Cuba, I asked what people thought. They all said they'd wanted to go to Cuba for a long time."

Now, it's just a matter of how long these kinds of trips will be open.

Cuba has been a "political football," Pastroumas said. The Bush administration wasn't friendly toward the country, and there's no guarantee that if Obama loses in November, the incoming Republican will take a kind view toward the communist nation.

"If we see a new administration, policy around Cuba would be completely up to them," Pastroumas said. "I have no answers given an administration change in 2013."

Editor-in-Chief Kevin Herrera contributed to this report.