Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Latin America Working Group Plans Trip in January with Witness for Peace

In January 2013, The Latin America Working Group staff and board are headed to Cuba again! Based on the fantastic success of our trip in January 2012, Witness for Peace (WFP) has asked us to serve us consultants to another people-to-people licensed delegation. Similarly to last year’s itinerary, this trip will focus on Cuban arts and culture.

We are so very excited at the opportunity to travel with Witness for Peace again and immerse our delegation in Cuban culture and real exchange with the Cuban people. Will you join us? Anybody can apply to be a part of this trip, as it falls under the category of people-to-people travel. However, unlike some Cuba travel these days, there IS an application process. Click here for information on how to apply.We anticipate to receive many more applications than we have spots available on our delegation. This means that your application doesn't guarantee your acceptance onto the trip.

Witness for Peace’s mission is dedicated to supporting peace, justice and sustainable economies in the Americas by changing U.S. policies and corporate practices which contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America and the Caribbean. LAWG’s mission’s is similar: working to promote human rights, justice, peace and sustainable development throughout the Latin America region; our tagline is “Action at home for just polices abroad.”  This January educational delegation will honor both the LAWG and WFP missions. Individuals who support these goals through their profession or their personal philosophy are strongly encouraged to apply.

Details about the sample trip content and the application procedure can be found here. We’d love to travel with you!

Note: The modest cost of this 9-day trip is reflective of the accommodations that we will have while in Cuba (think Days Inn or Motel 6). Neither glitzy, five-star hotels in Old Havana nor luxury tour buses on this trip. If you are ready for a real, hands-on Cuban experience, this is the trip for you.

Mavis and Emily (LAWG’s Cuba team)


Sunday, June 10, 2012

YMT Commercial Tour Operator Offering Discount Trips

Travel: U.S. policy changes ease travel to Cuba

New federal licensing program enables tour companies to set up cultural immersion and people-to-people travel packages
View of Havana from El Morro. PHOTO COURTESY YMT VACATIONS.
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY —Changes in U.S. policy on travel to Cuba have enabled companies likeYMT Vacations to introduce new tours under federal license aimed an enhancing cultural understanding.
Getting the needed permits took six months, but was worth the process, said YMT Vacations VP of marketing Richard Genovese. The 9-night cultural immersion features an in-depth exploration of Havana and Santa Clara as well as cultural and educational activities designed to give program participants a meaningful understanding of the island nation. Departures begin Sept. 4, 2012.
Our new Cuba program is truly unique as it allows value-oriented travelers the opportunity to visit a destination that was closed off for many years,” said Jerre Fuqua, President of YMT Vacations, which caters to discerning mature travelers.
The nine-night cultural immersion program is billed as a people-to-people experience with a a full-time program of educational and cultural exchange activities to promote contact and interaction with the Cuban people.
The program includes a visit to Old Havana & Revolucion Plaza, Jose Fuster’s House, Ernest Hemmingway’s Farm, the Che Guevara Museum, and a tobacco farm for cigar rolling lessons. Guests will also have the opportunity to interact with locals and participate in painting and dance classes.
Priced from $1999 per person for September departures, YMT’s Cuba, People & Culture program includes 8-nights of hotel accommodation (1-night in Miami, 5-nights in Havana, 2-nights in Santa Clara), a full program of cultural exchange activities, 15-meals as noted in itinerary, a professional tour manager, roundtrip charter flights from Miami to Cuba, baggage handling, and required Cuban visa and fee.
*$299 per person tax and fees are additional.  Price does not include $30 per person departure tax, airfare to Miami from home city and extra airline baggage fees.

the leading provider of affordable group travel packages, is pleased to announce the introduction of a People-to-People exchange program to Cuba.  The 9-night cultural immersion is affordably priced from $1999* per person and features an in-depth exploration of Havana and Santa Clara as well as cultural and educational activities designed to give program participants a meaningful understanding of the island nation.  Departures begin September 4, 2012.
“At the core of each and every one of our itineraries is the desire to provide our guests with a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience at an affordable price,” stated Jerre Fuqua, President of YMT Vacations.  “Our new Cuba program is truly unique as it allows value-oriented travelers the opportunity to visit a destination that was closed off for many years.”
YMT Vacations has been issued a specific license by the Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) authorizing travel to Cuba.  The license (CT-18935) permits YMT Vacations to organize “People-to-People” group travel that includes a full time program of educational and cultural exchange activities to promote contact and interaction with the Cuban people.
The program includes a visit to Old Havana & Revolucion Plaza, Jose Fuster’s House, Ernest Hemmingway’s Farm, the Che Guevara Museum, and a tobacco farm for cigar rolling lessons.  Guests will also have the opportunity to interact with locals and participate in painting and dance classes.
Priced from $1999 per person for September departures, YMT’s Cuba, People & Culture program includes 8-nights of hotel accommodation (1-night in Miami, 5-nights in Havana, 2-nights in Santa Clara), a full program of cultural exchange activities, 15-meals as noted in itinerary, a professional tour manager, roundtrip charter flights from Miami to Cuba, baggage handling, and required Cuban visa and fee.

For more information about YMT’s Cuba program, please contact YMT Vacations at 1-800-922-9000 or visit the website at www.ymtvacations.com.
About YMT Vacations:
Based in sunny Los Angeles, YMT Vacations has been a leader in providing affordable travel packages since 1967. YMT programs are targeted to a mature audience and feature land and cruise itineraries to popular destinations including Alaska, Hawaii and Europe.  Over one million travelers have enjoyed YMT’s time-tested tour programs and nearly half of their guests are repeats or referrals – two facts that illustrate that YMT Vacations truly is the best travel value available.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Greater Houston Partnership September Trips

Cuba libre: Havana is within reach for everyone with special Greater Houston Partnership trips

06.08.12 | 01:31 pm
Direct charter flights between Houston and Havana began in February, but Cuba is still out of reach for most with American passports.
But the Obama administration has been loosening requirements to visit the Caribbean country, offering new opportunities for students, religious groups and those with Cuban family members. Now all Houstonians have a chance to visit the island nation that attracted Ernest Hemingway and inspired Celia Cruz.
For its next World Discovery tour, the Greater Houston Partnership is working with Chamber Explorations on a nine day trip to Havana. Packages start at $4,299 and include a Cuban travel visa, nonstop airfare, hotel accommodations in Havana, 21 meals, transportation and several sightseeing excursions including Morro Castle, Catedral de la Habana, Hemingway's farm and a cigar factory — just don't try to bring any souvenirs home.
Get your Guayabera shirt ready and practice your mojito-drinking: The tours depart on Sept. 4 and Sept. 12.


Busboys and Poets Restaurant Trip in July

Cuba: Busboys and Poets "Cuban Culture, Business and Sustainability"

 July 1, 2012 – July 7, 2012
After much planning and anticipation Busboys and Poets is proud to announce our upcoming trip to Cuba!  We’ll be spending 6 days in Havana, Cuba exploring the arts and culture of the city and we hope that you will join us!

The trip’s theme and title is “Cuba Culture, Business, and Sustainability” and will combine opportunities to learn about the art and culture of Cuba by visiting sites and meeting people working in the arts, culture, and business fields.  We will also share our business practices in these discussions and explore the intersection of sustainable business, good art, and service to the community.
First, a little background about our restaurant: Busboys and Poets is a community where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted...a place to take a deliberate pause and feed your mind, body and soul...a space for art, culture and politics to intentionally collide...we believe that by creating such a space we can inspire social change and begin to transform our community and the world.
The trip will be a first for the Busboys and Poets travel team! We are excited to be kicking off with an exciting and rare trip to experience the arts, culture, business, and people of Cuba!
We hope you will join us for this exciting opportunity!For more details aboutBusboys and Poets please click here.

Program Highlights may include: 
• Meetings with Cuban architects and learn how Havana developed and take a tour of the city with various stops to promote lively discussions about urbanization.
• A meeting with UNEAC, Union of Writer and Artists to discuss the literary life and traditions of Cuba. We will be joined by poets and writers
• Visit the studios of local artists
• Evening performances with young classically trained singers, dancers and musicians—traditional Afro-Cuban music and dance, and more!
• Visit to the home studio of Jose Fuster, ceramic artist
Price Includes: 
* Flight Miami/Havana/Miami
• All accommodations
• Two meals a day
• Full-time bilingual guide/translator
• All entrance fees to scheduled activities and events.
• All in-country ground transportation, and transfers
• Cuban Health insurance
• Reading materials..
What is not included:
• Flights to Miami
• $25 Cuban Convertible Peso Exit fee to be paid upon departure of Cuba.
• Tips for your guide, driver, chambermaids, bell hops, and waiters are not included.
Single Supplement Available for $350 for the tour.
How to Register: 
To register, please send in your application form and a deposit of $500. Payments by Mastercard, Visa and Discover are welcome. Deposits for Cuba delegations are non-refundable unless the trip is canceled by Global Exchange as explained below.
Please note: We must meet a minimum number of trip participants on every trip, so please register early!
To ensure that all participants can plan accordingly, the minimum number of participants must be reached by June 15th, or the trip will be canceled. Registered participants can choose to receive a full refund or transfer to a future group. Once a trip is confirmed (reaches the minimum # of participants) registrations may be accepted up to 1 week before departure.
This trip will be as diverse as possible in terms of race, age and life experiences. In some cases, a limited number of partial scholarships are available for low-income applicants.
Contact Email: 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

OFAC and State Dept. Yield to Pressure for Children's License

American children allowed to travel to Havana only after last-minute appeal
The children’s orchestra performs in Havana as part of the Ship of Tolerance project
A project by the artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov during the 11th Havana Biennial was nearly derailed when the US Department of the Treasury denied the artists the necessary public performance and exhibition licence that would allow five US children to travel to Havana, saying the project was “not consistent with the current US ­policy on Cuba”.
“We had help from senators, congressmen and people in the art world trying to find out why we were denied the licence,” says Emilia Kabakov, who trained as a classical pianist in the Soviet Union before becoming a visual artist. According to the Kaba­kovs, their application had been sent to the US Department of State for further review because their project was seen as politically sensitive and would receive international attention as part of the Havana Biennial. 

A government official, who declined to be named for this article, says the state department was afraid that the American children would be used for political propaganda by the Cuban government. “Our argument to the state department was if the US doesn’t allow the children to come, then we will have a political situation,” Emilia Kabakov says. “Russian children are free to come but Americans are not. We live in a free country, so why can’t we bring this message to Cuba?” 

After winning an appeal, the Kaba­kovs’ Ship of Tolerance opened at the Oratorio San Felipe Neri in Havana on 10 May, with a classical music concert performed by children from the US, Russia and Cuba.

Under the US trade embargo in force since 1963, American citizens can only travel to Cuba with organ­isations that are licensed by the treasury department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (Ofac). According to Ofac, the estimated number of US travellers to Cuba in 2011 was around 390,000. When asked about the review process, Jeff Braunger, of the treasury department, says by email: “Licensing determinations are based on whether the applicant has satisfied the licensing criteria and will be engaging in activities that fall within the scope of current US policy.” 

Once the Kabakovs learned that their application had been denied, in mid-April, the artists immediately organised and filmed a concert with American children, preparing a video that could be shown alongside the live classical performances of their Russian and Cuban counterparts. They ­also appealed against the decision, and just seven days before the opening of their exhibition in Cuba, they ­received word that their licence had been approved by the treasury department. 

The children’s concert took place before the unveiling of the installation at the Castillo de la Real Fuerza on 11 May. Five-hundred Cuban children participated in the project, making paintings on the subject of tolerance that were sewn together to create the sail for the 66-foot-long by 23-foot-wide wooden ship, which was built on-site by a team of carpenters from Man­chester College, UK, and local student carpenters from the Escue­la Taller (workshop school) in Havana. The installation will ­remain in Cuba as a gift from the Kabakovs. 

When asked what the project meant for the Cuban people, the director of the biennial, Jorge Fernández, says: “It represents hope. If the children of our three countries can work together, it’s a lesson for adults.” The Russian ambassador to Cuba, Mikhail Kamynin, was less circumspect in his response saying: “We have to be tolerant of the political regime that exists, we have to respect the will of the people of sovereign countries; it’s not by accident that only three countries, the United States, Israel and the Marshall Islands, voted against the UN resolution to end the embargo.” 

Russia and the US government both have chequered relationships with Cuba. While Cuba received annual subsidies worth around $5bn from their Cold War ally before the fall of the Soviet Union, many who lived through the “special period” in the early 1990s when the Russian government withdrew economic support came to view their former benefactors as traitors and occupiers. 

As for the US, the economic embargo continues to make everyday living difficult. Al­though President Obama reinstituted people-to-people travel licences for cultural exchange in January 2011 and also increased the dollar amount family members are allowed to send back to Cuba, economic conditions remain bleak for the 11 million on the island, where the average income is just $20 per month. Miami-based Cuban-­Am­eri­cans who back the embargo have a strong lobby in Congress, and during this election year it is unlikely that President Obama will loosen restrictions further as Florida is a swing state.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Rocky Mountain College Takes Adults


RMC course takes group on cultural trip to ‘high-energy’ island country

When Rocky Mountain College offered a course about Cuba this winter, no students signed up. But adults in the community jumped at the chance to learn about and visit the communist island nation 90 miles south of Florida.

The class wanted to get a sense of the politically isolated country while its aging dictator, Fidel Castro, and his younger brother, President Raul Castro, who took power in 2008, are still alive, said Jennifer Lyman, an environmental sciences professor who taught the course.

Twenty adults and Lyman toured Cuba for nine days in late February and early March in an “Introduction to Natural Cuba Tour” organized through Cuba Educational Tours.

Contrary to general belief, travel to Cuba is legal and safe, said Nancy Wiggins, a Billings resident who went on the trip.

“It was a high-energy place. You could just sense the energy. Here’s a population that’s ready to take off,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins’ interest in Cuba comes from a social and political perspective after having been a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru in the 1960s.

More than 50 years after the Bay of Pigs, the failed 1961 invasion by U.S.-backed Cuban exiles attempting to overthrow Castro’s new communist government, the United States continues trade sanctions against Cuba even though the world has changed, Wiggins said.

“We trade with China, but for some reason we’re sanctioning Cuba. It made the trip very interesting,” she said.

“That embargo needs to go. There’s a hunger for Western things,” said Vicki Tapia, another Billings resident who went on the trip.

A need for ‘gifts’

Cubans don’t have easy access to products that Americans take for granted. While Wiggins was buying an item, the clerk commented on her lipstick and asked if she could buy it from her, she said. Wiggins gave the woman her lipstick. “Of course they love it,” she said.

Because the group traveled under a humanitarian license, it was told to bring useful items like soap, shampoo and batteries, Lyman said.

Tapia and her husband, Lionel,

stocked up on boxes of pencils and pens and Tylenol to give away, she said. They were told to call them gifts, not donations, she said.

While restrictions have eased somewhat under President Barack Obama’s administration, travel is limited to licensed visitors for specific activities — “a group with some sort of focus,” Lyman said.

Rocky’s trip had a “people to people” focus with the Americans meeting Cubans to learn about the country’s culture and environment.

“We went to botanical gardens and museums. It’s a real mix of things,” Lyman said.

The trip featured a walking tour of Old Havana to see its Spanish colonial-era architecture; a visit to the former home of American author Ernest Hemingway; and a day trip to the Vinales Valley, a tobacco-growing region with limestone formations and caves. The group also visited the cities of Cienfuegos and Trinidad de Cuba.

Hemingway connection

To prepare the group, Lyman taught Monday night classes on Cuba’s history, culture and politics.

The class also learned about Hemingway’s time in Cuba from Valerie Hemingway, who was Hemingway’s daughter-in-law and is an author and Bozeman resident. Valerie Hemingway, who is teaching a course at Montana State University Billings, had been Hemingway’s secretary in Cuba and then married his son.

When the Rocky group visited Finca Vigia, or Lookout Farm, which was Hemingway’s home near Havana for more than 20 years and now is a museum, the class met the museum’s director — a bonus that Lyman attributed to the connection with Valerie Hemingway.

The group flew into Havana from Cancun, Mexico, on a Russian-built airplane and traveled around Cuba in Chinese-made buses. American-made cars are mostly 1950s-era vehicles that serve as taxis.

One night, the Tapias and another Billings couple hired the driver of a 1956 Chevrolet taxi to take them to a park that had a sculpture of John Lennon sitting a bench. The car was in pristine condition, with fresh paint and a powerful engine. When they asked about the engine, the driver told them it was a Toyota, Tapia said.

On their first night in Havana, the group got tickets to see the Buena Vista Social Club, a Grammy-award winning group of musicians, some of whom are in their 90s, perform at their regular night club.

“That was so amazing. It was a highlight for everyone,” Tapia said. She even joined in a long conga line. Did she know how to conga? “Heck, no. I was just following the person in front of me,” she said.

Mojitos, Cuba’s signature rum-and-mint cocktail, awaited the Rocky visitors at almost every stop, Lyman said. At the tobacco farm, the group got to puff on some freshly hand-rolled Cuban cigars. By law, Cuban rum and cigars cannot be brought back into the United States.

Money shuffle

Cuba’s tourism is an important part of the economy and operates on a different monetary system.

Dollars are illegal in Cuba, so the Rocky travelers converted their money into either Canadian dollars or euros before leaving. At their hotel, they changed their money into Cuban convertible pesos that tourists use.

Cubans use the peso, which is valued differently from the convertible peso. The Cuban peso can be spent only at state-run stores where Cubans buy staples such as cooking oil and rice.

The average monthly salary for Cubans is $20, and prices at convertible peso stores are too expensive for most residents, according to the U.S. State Department.

Food is rationed, but “it’s not enough to really survive,” Tapia said. Cubans rely on tips or the black market or relatives sending money from the U.S. to live from month to month, she said.

“You tip for everything. We spent more money on tips than anything else,” Tapia said.

While at the John Lennon sculpture, a Cuban sitting on a nearby bench jumped up when he saw the Rocky foursome and put wire-rimmed glasses on Lennon’s face, Tapia said. “And he put out his hand,” she said. They tipped the man and took his photo by the famous Beatle.

Despite hardships, Cubans seemed happy, Tapia said. “They’re warm and generous and very open to America,” she said. The Cubans drew a distinction between Americans and government policies.

“They say, ‘We know it’s the government, not you,’ ” she said.

Read more: http://billingsgazette.com/news/local/article_62ddc577-4bd2-5536-9291-57d14dd983f6.html#ixzz1w65CNy00

Benedictine University Student Trip

College student from Palos sees beauty in people, culture of Cuba

Published as part of the May 31, 2012 edition.
By Nikki Holstein

A Palos Hills woman earlier this spring had the opportunity to visit a part of the world relatively few Americans have ever been — or have even been allowed to go.

Nimeh Abualleil, 21, was one of more than a dozen Benedictine University students who traveled to the Cuba, where the students over a period of 10 days in March visited health care clinics and met with doctors to learn more about the communist nation’s health care system. Abualleil is a junior majoring in health science and international business and economics, and aspires for a career as a pharmacist.

“When I heard about the class and the Cuba trip, I honestly couldn’t resist,” Abualleil said. “Cuba is a beautiful country with a rich culture. Travel to Cuba was recently opened [to select United States citizens], so it was definitely an opportunity I couldn’t miss out on.”

Students visited several community farms to look at how the Cubans practice permaculture. In addition to the farms and health care clinics, they toured a medical school, university and performing arts school.

“The main focus of our trip was to study the agriculture and the health care system,” Abualleil said. “The students there get a different approach to medicine. Medical school is free and there is a doctor in every community.”

Abualleil said she found herself surprised at the welcoming, inviting nature of the Cuban people.

“The people there are so unified and united,” she said. “There is no difference between me or you or their cousin. Everyone there is like one big family. I’ve lived on the same street for years and I only know probably one of my neighbors. But they knew everyone. People are so nice and open-minded there, and just very open to meeting us.

“I was walking in the town square with a friend, and a mother came up to me and in the few English words she knew, asked me why I was wearing my headscarf. Her little girl wanted to know. It was very heartwarming. They had such a different reaction to it than people here.”

President Barack Obama in January 2011 amended previous regulations and policies restricting American tourism to Cuba. Jack Thornburg, an associate professor of anthropology at Benedictine University, has taken full advantage of the amendment.

Thornburg, who has been to Cuba four times, initially began planning the study abroad trip last July when he was in Havana for an academic conference.

“I talked to a lot of people [in Havana] about the environmental issues and the community development going on in Cuba,” Thornburg said. “The issues they are dealing with and the ways they are dealing with them I found really interesting. I wanted to bring students down to look at that.”

Thornburg’s anthropology class was centered on Cuban tourism, community development and environmental sustain ability. To prepare for the trip, students read a series of articles and essays on those subjects and added a focus on Cuba. After their return from the island nation they were required to give a 90-minute presentation to the university on their experiences, and follow that up with a research paper.

“My interest is in sustain ability,” Thornburg said. “I think Cubans are very good at that. But the massive tourism on the beaches present a lot of challenges and I wanted to look at that.”

Students visited cities that related to the readings of the class including Havana, Santa Clara, Sancti Spiritus, Trinidad and Cienfuegos. In an effort to experience face-to-face contact with the Cuban people, Thornburg chose to visit cities that are not frequently traveled by tourists.

“Not many people go to a town like Santa Clara because there is not much there,” he said. “They have a big university, but there’s not much else. I wanted the students to get a better taste of Cuba.”

Thornburg has taken students to several Latin American countries including Venezuela, Costa Rica and Mexico.

“Cuba is different, say, from Costa Rica,” he said. “[Coast Rica’s] been working on tourism for a long time. The Cuban people had a real interest in meeting us because they don’t meet many Americans. In Costa Rica, we’re just part of the scenery.”

The trip allowed Thornburg to get a good look how the Cuban government has been stimulating an open dialogue between itself and communities, he said.
“One of the reasons I took the students to Cuba was because of the tremendous changes going on there,” he said. “The government can’t maintain absolute control over everything. They are encouraging people to start their own businesses and are trying to push people from being on the government payroll into taking care of themselves.”

One of the Cuban government’s greatest worries is the trending toward a capitalistic society, Thornburg said.

“They don’t want to have a small group of people with a lot, and a large group of people with nothing,” he explained. “As it becomes more capitalistic, it becomes a bigger problem. They don’t know if it is going to create resentment.”
Thornburg sees all the changes as a move in the right direction for Cuba.

“The one thing that will really improve things that the Cubans are waiting for is Raul [Castro] to start giving up power to a younger generation,” Thornburg said. “Raul has done a fairly decent job at opening things up, but they want a younger generation with new ideas to come in and open it up even more. There is no absolute guarantee and no one really knows, at this point, where it’s going. I think it’s been for the better, and many academics see it as very positive.”


Illinois Farm Bureau Market Study Tour

Producer seeks to explore Cuba's untapped potential

Dairy has become Cuba’s fastest-growing import sector, with demand rising 11 percent annually from 2000 through 2006 alone.

Martin Ross

Published: May 23, 2012

Before the Castro regime took control of Cuba in 1959, only 11 percent of rural Cuban families were regularly drinking milk, and the island was importing nearly 70 percent of its food, including dairy products, from the U.S.

Nearly a half-century later, dairy had become Cuba’s fastest-growing import sector, with demand rising 11 percent annually from 2000 through 2006 alone.

Reconstituted milk powder had become an important part of government-distributed child rations, while a major revival in Cuban tourism had spurred diversified, higher-end product demand.

Illinois Milk Producers Association President Doug Scheider, a participant in a forthcoming Illinois Farm Bureau Cuban market study tour, suggests research into the Cuba market and re-examination of U.S. Cuban trade/travel policies could help factor Midwest producers back in.

He hopes next month not only to gauge key challenges in expanding the island’s dairy diet but also to root out hidden or unexplored opportunities for Illinois sales.

“Under the current environment, are there Illinois dairy products we could be exporting to Cuba that maybe we’re just not aware of?” the Stephenson County dairyman posed.

“Is there a market for specialty cheeses? There are some smaller cheese plants in the northern part of the state which do some specialty cheeses.

“Are there products we could be sending there that we aren’t just because people may think it’s not a possibility?”

Scheider sees the possibility of expanding fluid milk as well as powder exports to Cuba, “if the market was truly open.” Although milk’s water content increases transportation costs, U.S. proximity to Cuba offers a relative freight advantage, and ultra-high temperature processing technology has helped extend the storage/shipping life of fluid product.

Fluid milk most likely would move to Cuba out of the Southeast, but even that would open domestic market share for Midwest producers, Scheider said. He notes the Midwest traditionally has shipped milk to the Southeast during the hot, humid summer months, when southern production wanes.

Scheider sees value in re-evaluating U.S. policies toward Cuba -- especially restrictions that effectively require Cuba to pay cash for U.S. goods.

In 2011, Cuba bought 27.6 million bushels of corn and 110,000 tons of distiller's dried grains from the U.S., but the U.S. Grains Council reports Cuba is buying more corn from South America because of requirements that U.S. purchases must be made in cash.

Opening travel to Cuba likely would boost Cuban hotel/restaurant demand for U.S. product, Scheider added.

The Illinois dairyman nonetheless recognizes continued debate over U.S. relations with Cuba, particularly among conflicting Cuban-American interests in Florida.

Scheider cited market gains the U.S. has enjoyed since expanding relations with Communist China, whose rising middle class has fueled a “dramatic” rise in dairy imports.

Chinese imports jumped 25 percent in March, with whey product purchases up 45 percent, amid continued fallout from the Chinese dairy sector’s melamine contamination scandal and a government focus on improved dairy nutrition.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Author Tom Miller Leads Professional Research Trip


Join us on this professional research trip to Cuba and be exposed to its literary qualities as they have developed from pre-independence to the life of writers today. Meet the people of Cuba and enjoy the music and culture of the island. This trip is open to all professional researchers with documented experience in the literary world. It is also open to others with a genuine interest in the literary arts who could benefit by exposure to their practice in Cuba.

Dates, Activities, and Details for Seven Days and Nights in Havana
Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013

* Departure from Miami International Airport
* Arrival in Havana/transfer to Hotel Florida.# Light lunch.
* Visit to Callejón de Hamel. 
* Welcome dinner  in Habana Vieja at Santo Angel. 

Callejón de Hamel is an alleyway in Centro Habana that, over the years, has been converted into an elaborate art and dance center focusing on Santería and other syncretic Afro-Cuban religions. On Sundays Callejón de Hamel is a crowded and lively affair where visitors watch and take part with neighborhood participants in the dancing and drumming. The Callejón with its extensive art space is open to the public daily. Transportation provided. 
Santo Angel, located in an old colonial home at Plaza Vieja, is a comfortable walk from our hotel.

* * *

Monday Jan. 7, 2013.

* Hotel Florida breakfast

* Study Cuban literary practices related to Havana’s unique architectural environment by visiting the four plazas of Old Havana and their neighborhoods with Isabel Rigol. Included is a visit to the maqueta of Habana Vieja and a further discussion about how literature, writing, and journalism flourished in pre revolution Cuba.
* Lunch at a paladar, Doña Eutimia, located on an alleyway just off the Plaza de la Catedral next door to the Graphics Workshop (itself worth a visit).

* Afternoon – Further study of literary practices in Cuba and its relationship to religious freedoms by visiting Havana’s main Cathedral and the Jewish Community Center. This will be followed by a meeting with a representative from Cuba’s theater world. 

* Dinner on your own at a paladar.  For our first weekday dinner, we recommend the restaurant NAO. 

The fine print: Your package cost includes the hotel’s daily breakfast buffet. 

More fine print: The maqueta – a scale model of Havana’s Old City – gives a great look at how the original Havana grew. Isabel Rigol, an architectural historian, gives a lively account of the city’s expansion.

Paladars are private licensed restaurants in family homes. At least they used to be. They’ve since evolved into private restaurants competing with state-run dining locales. You will be provided with a list of recommended paladars. One of the attractions of Doña Eutimia is that it’s next door to the Graphics Workshop, a worthwhile visit in its own right. NAO ia a highly praised paladar next to the Plaza de Armas.

* * *

Tuesday, Jan. 8

* Hotel Florida buffet breakfast

* Take a launch across Havana Bay to the village of Regla.

* Explore the town of Regla, the epicenter of Cuba’s Afro Cuban religion. Be exposed to the role of this religion in the literary life of this island nation. Travel by van to Guanabacoa.

* Visit the Guanabacoa Museum to learn about literary activities in Cuba by the Afro Cuban Community.

* Lunch at Doña Carmela. (voucher; your meal is covered)

* Visit to the estate of Ernest Hemingway, Finca Vigía, in the Havana suburb of San Francisco de Paula. 

* Dinner at the paladar of your choice; we recommend Café Laurent. 

The fine print: The cross-Bay launch to Regla is one of the few opportunities to use Cuban pesos. Otherwise, just about everything is done with convertible pesos, worth approx. $1.20 each, known by their official initials, CUC (kook). 

The small, human-sized church at Regla has the famous black Madonna.

The Guanabacoa Museum is a terrific place to learn the history of Afro-Cuban spirituality and beliefs, and how they developed clandestinely from slavery to today. 

Lunch takes place on a private outdoor backyard patio in a small housing complex on the east side of the Bay. (Included in package.)

The Hemingway estate includes a building that houses many of the author’s archives. In a rare bilateral accord, researchers from Harvard University’s JFK Library have been allowed to study and photocopy his papers here. It’s where Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote for most of the last two decades of his life.

Café Laurent, a paladar option in a penthouse, is walking distance from the Hotel Nacional in the Vedado section of town. 

* * *

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

* Breakfast at the Florida.

* Visit the Museum devoted to author and poet José Lezama Lima. 

* Transportation to the city of Matanzas. 

* Lunch at the Hotel Velasco in Matanzas. (covered by voucher)

* Afternoon visit and reception with the staff of Ediciones Vigía, an independent publishing house.

* Return to Havana.

* Paladar dinner back in Havana. Two recommendations for your meal: Le Chansonnier and La Moneda. 

* Salsa lessons (optional) with a member of Cuba’s Ballet Folklorico (first of two nights). 

Yet more fine print.  Lezama Lima (1910 – 1976) was a poet and author, whose internationally acclaimed controversial novel Paradiso (available in English) forced writer non grata status on the author.  Lezama was considered a major writer of his generation, and is now well praised for the breadth of his output.

The drive to Matanzas will give us a chance to see Cuba outside Havana. 

Ediciones Vigía produces lovely limited-run hand-made books.

The salsa lessons will take place in the living room of a Centro Habana residence not far from Barrio Chino.

Paladars: le Chansonnier, in Vedado, is French-oriented (menu, wine, etc.) and is located near the Bertolt Brecht Theater.  La Moneda, likewise highly regarded, can be found near the Plaza de la Catedral.

* * *

Thursday, January 10, 2013

* Breakfast at the Hotel Florida

* Meet with a playwright and director from Havana’s theater world. See rehearsal for a play.

* Visit the José Martí Casa Natal.

* A walk through the narrow streets of Barrio Chino, with running commentary by a life-long resident. 

* Lunch at Tien Tan, on the pedestrian walkway in Barrio Chino (or restaurant of your choice). 

* Afternoon: visit to a rooftop mixer with Cuban writers, poets, and others.

* Back to the hotel before dinner at La Barranca on the north patio at the Hotel Nacional 

* Option: After nine pm, live jazz at the Rincón del Jazz at La Zorra y El Cuervo.

* Salsa dance lessons, night number two. (Optional)

Finer print: The morning theater visit will take place at the Teatro Bertolt Brecht in the Vedado Neighborhood.

The birthplace of José Martí (b. 1853 d. 1895, architect of Cuban independence and a writer of international stature) is located in Habana Vieja. The Casa Natal gives a good overview of his life and importance. Martí spent most of the last fifteen years of his life living and working in New York. 

The fifth-floor walk-up rooftop mixer takes place at the home of internationally published poet Reina María Rodríguez who occasionally has colleagues over for drinks and invigorating chit-chat about literature and publishing. Spanish, while obviously advantageous, is not required for this or any of the week’s activities. Other passengers, our tour leader, and our guide will help out when needed, and of course many Cubans speak English. 

The Hotel Nacional patio has the best view of the Malecón seaside drive and the Caribbean Sea beyond.

* * *

Friday, January 11, 2013

* Hotel Florida breakfast.

* Museo de Bellas Artes.

* Lunch at El Templete.

* Afternoon option: Baseball game at the Estadio Latinoamericano.

* Dinner at a paladar – La Guarida is our nomination for this evening’s dinner. 

* Theater evening – either a major production and a historic venue or an avant garde/small theater company at a neighborhood venue.

The Fine Arts Museum

Finest print. The Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum) exhibits an extraordinary collection of Cuban art from early colonial times to early this week. (Another museum houses international art.) 

El Templete sits along the Malecón facing the Bay.

Baseball option: Three of Cuba’s sixteen teams are based in the Havana area, and there is almost always a game at the Estadio Latinoamericano. We hope to be joined by an expert on Cuban baseball to explain the qualities of the game here. The baseball schedule is not released until late fall, at which time we’ll know which teams will play this particular day. Transportation provided.

Theater evening. Our man in Havana is keeping his eyes out for announcements of productions in January. Once we have a choice we’ll let you know.

* * *

Saturday, January 12, 2013

* Hotel breakfast.

* Morning: Riverside Santería ceremony.

* Lunch at El Aljibe

* Final afternoon – Used and rare book dealers at the Plaza de Armas or on your own to visit corners of Havana thus far unexplored (or to revisit places of particular appeal).

* Farewell dinner at Kadir Lopez Home Studio with guests of our choice.  (Cost covered.)

Fine print: The riverside ceremony at the Bosque de La Habana involves authentic Yoruba chanting and drumming with genuine equipment and local Santeros. Regla Albarrán Miller will be present to explain.

The venerable El Aljibe serves comida criolla – that is, very Cuban food. (And very good.)

Visitors gain a great deal of insight from browsing the second-hand and rare book stands at the Plaza de Armas and chatting up the booksellers for not only their knowledge of contemporary and bygone books and authors, but also the current literary scene. 

Our farewell dinner takes place in the backyard of the Kadir López Home Studio, a casual affair.

* * *

Sunday, January 13, 2013

* Breakfast, then check out of hotel.

* Transfer to airport.

* Go through ticketing process that includes $25 CUC airport exit fee.

* Arrive Miami International Airport, clear immigration and customs, connect to your destination.

* * * * *

The Literary Havana package includes:

* Roundtrip, Miami↔Havana
* Cuban visa
* Accommodations, seven nights, Hotel Florida
* Daily breakfast
* five lunches
* three dinners (15 meals in all)
* admission to five museums
* “luxury motor coach” transportation to all destinations including Matanzas
* Professional fully bilingual guide from Havanatur
* Medical insurance (obligatory)

The package does not include:
* Gratuities (guide, driver, restaurant servers)
* $25 CUC airport departure tax

Package price: $3118. (Single room, +$400) #

* Best bet: an early morning or evening stroll along the Malecón.*

Unknowns can pop up. For example, during a similar trip our guide learned of a performance by the Cuban National Ballet and arranged for terrific last-minute seats at the Gacrcía Lorca Theater, a wonderfully restored art deco venue. There should be no shortage of places and people to visit and interview to fulfill your literary research.

Recommended reading and links:

Harper’s Magazine October 2010: “Thirty Days as a Cuban” http://www.penultimosdias.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Harper-Havana-Oct2010.pdf

The Economist Special Report on Cuba – March 24, 2012: http://www.economist.com/node/21550418

“Nuestra América” by José Martí

History and information: 
Cuba: A Global Studies Handbook, by Ted Henken
Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Julia Sweig 

Paradiso, by José Lezama Lima
Dirty Havana Trilogy by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez

The Whole Island – Six Decades of Cuban Poetry (A Bilingual Anthology), ed.: Mark Weiss

Violet Isle, by Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb 

CD bonus track: Traveler’s Tales – Cuba

…and Tom Miller’s Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels through Castro’s Cuba, which, if you don’t own, we’ll supply you with a copy.

Trip leader: Tom Miller has been a regular visitor to Cuba since 1987. He is the author of Trading With the Enemy, editor of Traveler’s Tales Cuba, co-founder of the (since suspended) U.S.-Cuba Writers Conference, and has served as tour leader for educational Cuba trips by the National Geographic Society and other organizations. He has written frequently about Cuba’s history and its social and cultural life for a wide range of publications, including Smithsonian, LIFE, the Washington Post, and Natural History. He lives in Arizona. Co-leader Regla Albarrán Miller lived the first forty years of her life in Havana, and visits the island annually. She is currently in the graduate program in Spanish Literature at the University of Arizona.

If you are a full time professional whose travel to Cuba is directly related to non-commercial research in your full time professional area and your trip will comprise a full work schedule in  Cuba and has a substantial likelihood of public dissemination then this trip is for you.

* for questions about trip activities contact Tom Miller via e-mail: tlmolinero@msn.com or at (520) 325-3344 daily after 11 a.m. East coast time. 

* to join the group, to inquire about qualifications, and to make payment arrangements, contact Yaíma and Peter Sanchez at Cuba Tours and Travel: 1 (888) 225-6439 or write to tours@cubatoursandtravel.com  

The absolute deadline for this Professional Researcher trip -- sign-up and $500 deposit -- is Monday, November 12.

* Sign up at http://tourinfosys.com/signup/tom_miller_lit_hav_2013 

* Please note that this trip is designed for Professional Research under the guidelines of the U.S. Treasury Department. For more information on Cuba travel restrictions please visit www.treasury.org/ofac 

* One final note: we welcome Cuban-born participants. They must jump through additional hoops, so native Cubans should sign up early.

This invitation is for professionals in the field who qualify for full time professional research in the fields of literature, journalism, translation, and writing. This invitation is intended for you and a small group of other professionals, and therefore is limited in size. Thank you for understanding. 

A July 17, 2012 write-up of the Jan. 2011 “Literary Havana” trip appeared in the Arizona Republic: http://www.azcentral.com/travel/articles/2011/07/13/20110713cuba-havana-history-beauty.html

We have many references from similar previous trips if you are interested in chatting with someone who went. And of course, you can call Tom Miller (520-325-3344) with questions.

This trip is being offered by Cuba Tours and Travel LLC.
320 Pine Avenue
Suite 503
Long Beach, CA. 90802
1 888 225-6439
Treasury Department License # CU-077926
The fine print: You will be sent detailed departure information well in advance of our trip. 

Eau Claire Wisconsin Couple Join National Geographic Trip

New rules make travel to Cuba easier for Americans

Last year President Barack Obama's administration resumed issuing so-called "people-to-people" licenses intended to promote more contact between Americans and Cubans and make it easier for ordinary U.S. citizens to visit the island as long as they go with a licensed operator.

By: By Eric Lindquist, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis., Superior Telegram

Cuba has an exotic reputation as an island nation known for aromatic cigars, classic cars, spicy Latin dances and Fidel Castro-style communism.

But despite lying just 90 miles south of Florida in the Caribbean Sea, Cuba has been mostly off-limits to American travelers since being put under a U.S. economic embargo 50 years ago.

That began to change last year when President Barack Obama's administration resumed issuing so-called "people-to-people" licenses intended to promote more contact between Americans and Cubans and make it easier for ordinary U.S. citizens to visit the island as long as they go with a licensed operator.

The opportunity was too good to pass up for Wayne and Carole Halberg of the town of Washington, who long had dreamed of exploring Cuba.

When Carole received an email from National Geographic touting its newly approved Cuban people-to-people tours, she told her husband, "I think we need to go and we need to go soon."

Wayne immediately agreed, and they promptly booked a trip in January led in part by renowned Cuban authority Christopher Baker.

They're lucky they acted fast because the tour was full within two hours, and the pent-up demand for Cuban travel among Americans helped National Geographic fill all of its trips for the year within two days.

"It was wonderful," Carole said of their nine-day vacation that was more a cultural experience than a tropical island getaway. "It was a rare chance to see something really authentic."

The people-to-people licenses require U.S. visitors to spend at least eight hours a day learning about Cuban culture and also to keep a journal and record all spending in the communist nation. The Halbergs had plenty to write about, as their trip included visits to farms, homes, schools, factories, art studios, natural areas and even the historic Bay of Pigs.

"It's so amazing because Cuba hasn't had much Western industrialization, so it's environmentally pristine," said Wayne, who considers himself somewhat of a Cuba buff.

Wayne also is a huge fan of Ernest Hemingway and thus treasured the opportunity to visit the legendary author's house near Havana. Visitors weren't allowed to enter but could explore the grounds, see Hemingway's wooden boat and look in the home's open doors and windows.

As the Halbergs traveled through the countryside on tour buses, they were amazed to see acres of former sugar cane fields left as fallow land. Sometimes scenes seemingly from a bygone era, such as two men and an ox trying to plow the earth, played out before their eyes.

And on those rural roads, the 23 tourists on the National Geographic tour were as likely to cross paths with residents on ox carts or bicycles as those behind the wheel of a car, Wayne said, noting economically struggling Cuba has only one car for every 1,000 people.

That's one reason for a government rule that requires anyone driving a truck who comes across someone standing by the road to stop and let him or her ride in the back of the vehicle.

In Havana, classic American cars from the 1950s were everywhere and a huge attraction for visitors.

"If a car breaks down, they fix it where it breaks," Carole said. "They're masters at it; they're geniuses when it comes to fixing cars."

The Halbergs said their Cuban hosts were friendly and used to seeing tourists, just not many from the United States, although some Americans for years have dodged travel restrictions by flying to Cuba from other countries, such as Canada or Mexico.

But their openness disappeared when the subject of politics arose.

"The people are very restrained about expressing their opinions because they don't know who's listening. They don't even say Castro's name; they just do this," Wayne said, pretending to rub a long beard. "The bearded one."

These glimpses at life in a modern communist society were part of the appeal of the trip for the Halbergs, who came away impressed by the country's high average level of education and world-class health care but sympathetic to citizens who receive a ration card once a month entitling them to about 10 to 12 days worth of food and basic supplies from government-owned stores with extremely limited choices.

"They're on their own for the rest," Carole said, adding the government also provides every child with a birthday cake until age 14 and all marrying couples with a bottle of rum, a case of beer and a wedding cake for their nuptials.

The average monthly salary of a Cuban is $18, according to National Geographic.

For Carole, the trip also was an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of her grandfather, who visited Cuba a century ago and bought 20 acres of land for $500. She still has a copy of the handwritten deed (in Spanish) for the land, which was surrendered to the government after Castro came to power in 1959, as well as postcards and photos he sent.

When she asked the tour guides about the land purchase, she was told it was something many early visitors to Cuba were talked into but something akin to the classic con of "buying swampland in Florida."

Considering Cuba's leadership is mostly elderly and changes appear imminent, the Halbergs are glad they made the trip when they did so they could seemingly step back in time and experience old Cuba.

They clearly are not alone, as Cuba is a hot destination for Americans unsure how long the people-to-people licenses will remain available. The high level of interest prompted both the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce and the UW-Eau Claire Alumni Association to offer trips this summer.

The chamber tour is sold out, as many participants viewed it as a rare opportunity.

"These licenses are only good for one year, so these tour companies may never get this opportunity again," said Bob McCoy, chamber president, who is going on the trip this month. "Even if Cuba eventually opens up more, it would be a different experience. No one will see it like we're going to see it."

Lindquist can be reached at             715-833-9209      ,             800-236-7077       or eric.lindquist@ecpc.com


Sunday, June 3, 2012

Former Reporter Joins Witness for Peace Trip

Traveler visits the real Cuba

To Cuba! So inviting, so forbidding! So near in miles, so distant in history and political destiny!
The adventure began when our hosts from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center in Havana met us at the José Martí International Airport. They were in an antiquated yellow school bus emblazoned with colorful drawings and signs proclaiming Pastors for Peace and U.S.-Cuba Friendshipment, other organizations the King Center is associated with.
We were traveling with Witness for Peace, a U.S.-based organization that works for peace and understanding through people-to-people educational tours. Our visit to Cuba focused on arts and culture and enabled us to meet and interact with many ordinary Cubans and learn about their lives in a partnership with the King Center.
When our luggage and we were settled on the picturesque bus, driver Hermes pressed the starter. Nothing happened.
“Everybody out to lighten the bus,” ordered Diego Benitez, the American Witness for Peace representative in Cuba. All the men lined up to push the bus, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief when it jump-started.
Our first stop was the Hotel Tulipan, a beautiful modern hotel built around an open courtyard with an outdoor bar and lush tropical plants. But the next day a torrential rainstorm flooded the lobby and walkways through the open areas. Hotel staff members were frantically sweeping the water out. Luckily, that was the only real rainfall we had in Cuba.
We were able to take part in the 25th-anniversary celebration of the King Center, where we stayed for most of our visit. A partnership is required for a U.S.-granted license to travel in Cuba, and staff members from there worked with our leaders on trip activities.
The accommodations were anything but luxurious – bunk beds, cold showers and simple family-style meals of chicken or tuna, rice, soup, a salad plate and fresh tropical fruits, with eggs and cereal for breakfast as a rule.
In central Havana, a giant lighted display honored Che Guevara and José Martí, heroes of the 1959 revolution, at the site where Pope Benedict had appeared just days before. There were also many government-sponsored billboards with various messages in Spanish: “Blockade – The Longest Genocide in History,” “Preserve and Improve Our Socialism,” “Viva La Revolución!” and “Freedom for the Five Cuban Heroes.”
In addition to political messages, we also saw an explosion in the arts in Cuba. We went to museums featuring artists seldom or never seen in the U.S. and met two incredible artists in their home studios. We also attended a magnificent ballet performance by students from the national ballet school in the Grand Theater next to the capitol.
We were able to observe firsthand some of the changes taking place as the state moves away from rigid control of the economy. With few resources, the Cuban government is focusing on tourism. Luxurious new hotels cater to a growing tourist industry, and fancy government-owned Transtur buses carry mostly non-U.S. tourists as they traverse the small Caribbean nation.
In keeping with this trend, individuals are being encouraged to start small businesses and hire employees; at least part of the reason is that the government can no longer afford to provide jobs for everyone. We had gourmet meals at several outstanding privately owned restaurants, known as paladares, including La Figura, an outdoor cafe at the home of a famous Cuban sports star, and Cabildo, which offers a “street opera” performance after dinner.
Among those featured in the musical program was the pretty daughter of our Cuban guide Carmen Pérez Díaz. And Carmen’s husband, Eibar, mixed mojitos, a rum-lime drink, for all of us, using the leftover funds from a birthday party we had held for one of our members, Ray Jordan of New York.
Cuban people can now own homes and buy and sell cars. A lot of the autos on the road date to the 1950s and are in varying states of decay or restoration. Stalled cars are a common sight. At one point our bus stopped so the men could get out and push a car that was blocking the road. But there’s also a mix of new small cars, and I noticed a Peugeot dealership in Havana.
We didn’t see discontent among the ordinary Cubans we met and observed going about their lives. People insisted they could speak freely, though public criticisms of the government seem to get them in trouble. The things most people seem concerned about are the embargo maintained by the U.S. and Cuba’s restrictions on its citizens’ travel for anyone other than celebrities.
A taxi driver who was learning English said he had two brothers living in the United States and would like to visit them but can’t. However, he wouldn’t want to live there, he said. “I love my country.”
Many of the magnificent old buildings in Havana appear to be nearing collapse or are undergoing repairs. Cuba’s majestic capitol in the heart of the city was closed for restoration. A vocational school we visited in Old Havana is teaching students masonry, carpentry, glass work, painting and other skills.
The Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos Vocational School, like other higher education institutions in Cuba, is free, and the young men and women who complete the course are either assured of state jobs in restoration or become teachers themselves.
A striking thing about the appearance of Cuba is that there are no advertising billboards, no big-box stores, little visible industry and no fast-food restaurants. In fact, there is almost nowhere to spend money except for the tourist-oriented shops, bars and restaurants in Old Havana.
But we could find little to buy there either. As U.S. citizens we could only bring back educational materials, which could include art, posters, music CDs, books and similar items. Crafts were excluded, although there’s a fine line where some things are acceptable and others aren’t. Cuban cigars are a definite no-no!
Several members of our group went to Cuba intending to buy art, which they did in our visits to the studios of Saúlo Serrano Serrano and José Fuster. The home of the latter was a work of ceramic art in itself, from the gates and walls to whimsical and highly imaginative decorative objects everywhere.
At least two people paid $400 or more for several large paintings that may be worth considerably more once Cuba opens up to the rest of the world. The paintings were removed from their frames and rolled up for transport. A capitalist enterprise at work in Cuba! At Saúlo’s studio, members of our group probably spent from 3,000 to 4,000 pesos (equivalent to dollars).
We spent our first two days at the Tulipan because the King Center had a scheduling conflict. The next day we went to Cuba’s major beach resort, Varadero, in Matanzas province, and stayed dormitory-style at a Presbyterian center across the street from the beach. (This trip was euphemistically called a “coastal tour” since all our activities were supposed to be educational.)
For six months of the year, the center offers free services to children with acute or chronic diseases and needy senior citizens; it pays for these services by renting to groups like ours the other six months. Several of our group were sent to nearby homes because there wasn’t room enough for all of us. Aside from sleeping four or five to a room and sharing a bath, we had a warm welcome and delicious home-cooked meals there.
Our next move was to the King Center in a working-class area of Havana, where we found roommates and were assigned to small but clean rooms for the rest of our stay. There were four bunks to a room for the children or young people who are often there, but we were two to a room and could use the lower bunks.
The director, the Rev. Raúl Suarez, said the center was formed in 1987 to meet the needs of the community. A retired Presbyterian minister, he said that beginning that year it was possible for the church to have a place in Cuban society. The center receives no support but has no interference from the government, he said. The founders chose to honor King because of his tradition of non-violence and because he “taught us that faith can fight force.”
The center, which adjoins the Ebenezer Baptist Church, offers one especially valuable service to the community, with the aid of a church in Minnesota. Local people can bring jugs to get pure water in the center’s courtyard. Tap water is not potable in Cuba.
While in Matanzas we visited one of Cuba’s “polyclinics,” the second level of the Cuban health system. This clinic was the hub for 26 of the local community clinics in its vicinity. The local clinics have at least one doctor and nurse and are responsible for primary health care in the immediate area. Any serious problem is referred to the polyclinic, and from there the patient may be sent to a hospital if necessary.
All health care for Cubans is free. So is education for doctors, who don’t make high salaries; some even work second jobs.  A woman doctor at the local clinic said the doctors focus on preventive care and go into homes to assess conditions.  New mothers and babies are watched closely in the months after birth, she said, and each person in the community is evaluated once a year.
Chet Gardiner, a member of our group, learned about the health system first hand when he developed the usual traveler’s ailment related to bad food or water. (All of us had paid $30 along with the price of our Havana flight for temporary health insurance in Cuba.)
Diego took Chet to the local clinic, where he saw a doctor within five minutes, was given some medication immediately and was placed on an IV for a couple of hours because of dehydration. He also received an EKG because he had had a heart attack in February. He left with medicine to be taken in the next three days.
 “They were focused on my needs, on taking care of me,” he said. “No one asked how I could pay.” As it turned out, everything was covered except $30 for the EKG, which he said would have cost him several hundred dollars at home.
We quickly found out how Cubans felt about the embargo imposed by the U. S. after the 1959 revolution and the starvation it caused after the Soviet Union pulled out in the early 1980s and left them on their own:  angry. But the people we met were warm and welcoming toward us as individual Americans.
The first activity held to celebrate the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center anniversary focused on “the five Cuban heroes” and was packed with people from the neighborhood and the staff. A Cuban woman read letters and poems from the Cuban men imprisoned in the U. S. and Edelso Moret, our translator and a professor at the University of Havana, translated as she spoke.
One piece disturbed him so much that he broke down and left the room momentarily. That piece was repeated when he returned, and we heard the last part of the prisoner’s letter to his wife: “There are two things it is impossible to live without: the sun and your smile.”
There are two drastically opposed views of the “Cuban heroes.” To Cubans, they are intelligence agents who went to Miami in the 1990s to infiltrate exile groups and learn whether they were plotting against Cuba. When they reported what they had learned, they were arrested as terrorists, tried unfairly in Miami and given lengthy prison terms.
To the Americans, they were terrorists whose actions caused two small planes flying from Florida into Cuban air space to be shot down by Cuban forces, and they remain too dangerous to be released.  The story is much more complicated than that, but I don’t know the answer to it — maybe an exchange for Alan Gross, an American businessman who is serving a 15-year prison sentence for taking electronic technology into Cuba.
The U.S. embargo that began after Fidel Castro’s takeover in 1959 and still continues brought near-starvation to the Cuban people and continues to pose problems. For example, members of the staff at both health clinics we visited said they had trouble getting needed medicines, especially for cancer treatment of children.
The food shortages after Cuba’s loss of support from the Soviet Union were so critical that people planted vegetable gardens in their yards and started raising chickens and livestock in the cities. The early-morning crowing of cocks is a familiar sound in Havana!
We visited the Alamar cooperative farm, a community-operated organic garden on about 11 acres in Havana – organic at first from necessity because chemicals and machinery were not available. The farm, which emphasizes sustainability, produces some 270 kinds of vegetables and medicinal plants and sells its products to the local community and some Havana hotels.
Fifty percent of the profits go to the 154 workers. The farm pays a tax of 3 percent for the use of the land, and the rest is used for development, the farm manager said. The farm is a national training center for the Ministry of Agriculture and universities and gets many visitors from the United States and other countries.
The biodiversity and non-mechanized methods prevent damage to the soil, and the organic principles “allow us to live with the land and not from the land,” the manager said. The development of sustainable agriculture was actually an unexpected benefit that came from the embargo, he said.
The United States does not have relations with Cuba and has no embassy there. Instead, there is a U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Near the end of our visit, our group met with Nancy Szalwinski of the press office there. The section occupies a modern highrise on Malecón, the boulevard that runs along the Caribbean coast in downtown Havana.
In response to our questions about the continued embargo, Szalwinski said that “a small group of people” in the U.S. feel “at a visceral emotional level” that it should not be eased. Continuation of the embargo is “entirely political,” and any change would have to be made at the legislative level, she said. (The unspoken reference was to Cuban exiles in Florida.)
At one point the Bush administration installed a huge electric sign with pro-democracy messages on the side of the U.S. Interests building. Castro retaliated by installing around 100 flagpoles with Cuban flags flying to prevent anyone from seeing the sign. The message and flags are gone, but the poles are still there.
A few highlights from the trip:
> The 180-year-old San Alejandro art school (also free) was preparing for a major international exhibit a few days after our visit.  Paintings in process were on the ground and along the walls, and students and teachers were debating the placement of works to be shown. The artist Saúlo (the way he signs his works) is a professor there and later showed our group around the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana.
> At the National Center for Sex Education, attorney Manuel Vásquez Sejido gave a graphic description of the free sex-change surgery in Cuba and said the nation is moving toward approval of same-sex marriage. The aim of the center is to achieve equality and non-discrimination, he said. The center is headed by President Raúl Castro’s daughter Mariela, said to be a possible successor to her father.
> Four Santería priests in satin robes and bejeweled caps welcomed us to a religious ceremony in their house-temple in the Mariana district of Havana. Santería is an African religion sometimes associated with voodoo and animal sacrifice that has blended with the Catholic religion in Cuba.
In the ritual, costumed women representing various spirits performed frenzied dances to the rhythm of drums. Santería is fully recognized in Cuba, a spokesman said, and any member who is hospitalized can ask to see a Santería priest.
> A huge anniversary celebration for the King Center drew 400 to 500 people at a Havana theater. Director Raúl Suárez urged the celebrants to continue to advance in dramatic terms: “Fly if you can. If
The center’s programs include publications, workshops, participation in social and ecumenical activities, community solidarity and organization, and sustainability development.
>The ferry ride: After going through a thorough inspection of purses and backpacks and a patdown at the gate, we took a cramped ferry across the bay from Havana to the small town of Regla. The precautions were to prevent hijacking by anyone eager to divert the standing-room-only ferry to Miami.
In Regla we saw several small businesses – an ice cream store, a shoe repair shop – begun after economic rules were changed in the past year or so to allow private enterprises. A weekend throng of families and children filled a small park at the center of town, where another entrepreneur was selling soft drinks and eggs.
On the morning of our departure, we stopped for several hours at a huge artisans’ mall on the waterfront – an opportunity to spend our last pesos on mostly reproduction art or crafts like dolls, T-shirts, masks and toys that appeared to be locally made.
On a wall outside was a hand-lettered sign: “Our five heroes will return.”
To learn more about Witness for Peace, go to http://www.witnessforpeace.org. For those who would prefer more luxurious accommodations, other places licensed to offer Cuba trips include National Geographic, Road Scholar, Insight Cuba, Cuba Travel USA and Friendly Planet. Visas and health insurance are usually included in flight costs.
Ruby Layson is a former newspaper reporter and freelance writer who has traveled extensively in South America.