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Filtering by Tag: cuba

A Tale of Two Cubas through the Eyes of Two Leaders



A simple word that any YFU student knows is anything but simple. We’ve been back for two weeks from Cuba, and just this past week, we held our “re-entry orientation” with the program participants. Historically these YFU sessions are for teenagers, who experience great reverse culture shock when they return to their native countries. This version would be with 40-plus adults who were gone for a much shorter time but who experienced no less intense a transition home. 

Part of the reason for that tough transition was in the duality of Cuba itself, which in some ways can best be illustrated by our visits with two key figures: a private dinner with Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the Chargé d'Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Havana (our de facto Ambassador); and a lunch with Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education.

Both leaders were hopeful for the future of Cuba and predicted very different pathways for the nation. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, Ambassador DeLaurentis was very pragmatic about what he saw after the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba. He summed it up by saying (and I’m only slightly paraphrasing), “What will happen next depends on the Cubans.”

I met Mariela Castro at a private luncheon for our delegation on Day 7 of our trip. We had thought that she might stop by during our meeting with CENESEX days prior, but we were told that in addition to her role as Director of CENESEX, she also was a member of the Cuban Parliament, which was convened that week. As she walked into our dining space, she said she had recently had significant back problems, showing us a small brace and noted that this was the first day she was really allowed to be out and about. Cuban politics are still an artform in managing perception and power.

Castro shared with us a nearly 40-minute treatise on realizing LGTB civil rights in her country. It was easy to see how people could be charmed by her and her family. Her speech was warm, hopeful and extremely practical. While she cited that the only way to create new civil rights in a society is by changing attitudes from the ground up (versus the government down), she did note that in some of her efforts, when a group disagreed, “sanctions” were necessary. I found her to be a compelling leader, even if I didn’t agree with her government’s stance on achieving the means to the end.

Truth be told, we were “stage managed” through much of our public appearances in Cuba. It was seldom lost on our group that the public presentations were intended to give us exactly the view the government wanted on US-Cuban relations, but the complexity of another Cuba shows up in talking to the people.

Young people, in particular, are frustrated with the pace of change. Those we had a chance to talk to believe two things quite powerfully: 1) that the embargo never hurt the Castros at all, despite that being its intent. As they note, the ruling class continues to lead very comfortable, lavish lives, have never been without food and don’t experience the housing shortage, and 2) the Castros and the current leaders will only allow things to normalize and free-up if it also can happen with them still being firmly in control.

Mariela herself hinted at this when we asked if she thought Wal-Mart or Starbucks would be welcomed on the island as restrictions ease. “Cuba will decide what comes to Cuba. We aren’t going to welcome Wal-Marts just because they want to come if it’s not best for the ideals of the Revolution.” (again, only a very slight paraphrase). I was struck by the way she evoked Fidel Castro’s name as if a Biblical figure: “As Fidel said in 1974…” The Revolution was very much alive for many.

There was much to wonder about for the future of the country. The infrastructure is way behind, as is the economy overall. We were stuck in the Havana airport for an extra four hours, we later found out, because communication between the island and the United States was down: the passenger manifest had no way to be cleared by Homeland Security to allow us to depart. So much work was needed. As Ambassador DeLaurentis noted: it was up to the Cuban government whether normalization of relations would do much to fix that.

One of the Cubans we met put it more starkly: “The sad thing is that too many Cubans believe the normalization of relations is going to fix all the ills of the current Cuba.  That’s not going to happen if the government feels it will lose control in the process.”

Part of any exchange experience is asking participants to see a culture not through one’s own eyes but also through the eyes of the people you are visiting. At YFU, we conduct a workshop called “Colored Glasses,” which refers to the well-known analogy of the sunglasses, which represents the cultural filters through which we observe and interpret reality. Re-entry has been so hard for our group because our visit challenged us to find our own truth about Cuba, and in many ways, a new or revised truth about our own country in the process.

Two leaders: a US diplomat and the daughter of a founder of the Revolution. Both have great hopes for Cuba, and yet both see different roads to the same destination. For our group, we fell in the love with the people and the culture. As the US and Cuba open up to one another again, I can only hope we attempt to see the future through the “colored glasses” of the other. If we do that, perhaps both the US and Cuban peoples have reason for esperanza.


Cuba: Day 7


Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.  

Day 7 –Friday, July 17

A week goes by too fast. We had one last full day to take in more of Cuba’s history, and this day would plunge us into some of the complexity of the island’s struggle with religion.

We started the day at the church of Nuestra Senora de Regla, one of Cuba’s most frequented pilgrimage churches, which houses the statue of the Virgin of Regla, who is black and cradles a white infant in her arms. She is the patron and protector of sailors and considered the equivalent of Yemaya, the goddess of the sea in the Yoruba religion. When we arrived, there was a Catholic mass happening inside the church. Since Raul Castro’s presidency, relations with the Catholic Church have thawed a bit. President Castro, himself, recently told Pope Francis, who is visiting the nation in September, that he might consider a personal return to the Catholic Church. It only underscored the tension that Cuba is experiencing as the Revolution morphs with time.

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Following our church visit, we traveled a short block to the Municipal Museum of Regla. Each township has a municipal museum that chronicles the history of the town, its people and important moments. We learned of a raid on the town during the festival honoring the Virgin of Regla, where four young men were killed. The cousin of one of our guides was one of the four, which brought the story closer to home.

While there, we experienced the ritual dance of Santeria, the religion brought to Cuba by African slaves. Despite misconceptions that Santeria was blended with Catholicism, many practice the religions in parallel. The ritual dance was high spirited and ended with our delegation dancing along with the ceremonial dancers.

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One cannot fully participate in Youth For Understanding without a love and appreciation for young people. That afternoon, following a spectacular lunch at a historic club, we were treated to a dance performance by the Bebe Compania Project at the Bertolt Brecht Theater. Children ranging in age from five to their teens put on a great performance for us, after which GMCW performed for them. Little did we know, all of us would end up on stage learning traditional Cuban dances by the end of the day. The children were patient teachers!

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The Chorus would officially end its performance tour at Casa de las Americas, the most prestigious cultural venue in Cuba. We were met there by international media, including a crew from NBC, who had followed us through much of Cuba for a later documentary on the trip. I was so proud of these guys who had performed more than 20 times that week. Their songs of freedom and equality would no doubt have an impact on all those who heard them for some time to come. They were incredible musical ambassadors for our nation and for LGBT people.


As we departed the theater, Alex Lopez, our Travel Director and trip mastermind, had arranged for us to ride to our farewell dinner in a parade of vintage cars. Cruising through the streets of Havana, with the wind in our faces, was a perfect finale to a remarkable week. As we looked out onto the street, we raced by so many places and faces we had seen that week. The site of 20 or so convertibles with “crazy Americans” screaming in them caused quite a stir on our route. What a blast!

parade of cars

A farewell toast on the roof of Ambos Mundos Hotel, Hemingway’s first home in Havana and one of his favorite places to grab a drink, Alex was pushing us to leave for dinner. We should have known that his earnestness meant another surprise was in store. He decided a simple walk would not do, and arranged for stilt walking performers to lead us through the streets. It didn’t take long before we had created a “Carnival-like” parade, picking up people as we went to dinner at Café Del Oriente Restaurant, overlooking the Plaza de San Francisco, the site of our first day in Old Havana. Things had come full circle.

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We spent our last dinner in Cuba paying tribute to our amazing guides. I was most moved to hear our YFU volunteer, Rick Withem, describe his experiences traveling with the Gay Men’s Chorus and how he now better understood the exchange students he had hosted for many years, as he felt as if he had just finished an exchange year in a week.

rick withem

This last photo shows the staff crew from both organizations that helped pull off this remarkable journey, and they deserve to be listed and celebrated (from left to right):

  • Dr. Paul Heins, GMCW’s Assistant Music Director
  • Chase Maggiano, GMCW’s Executive Director
  • Dr. Thea Kano, GMCW’s Artistic Director
  • Next to me, Gina Palmisano, Recruiting Manager for YFU’s Study Abroad Program
  • Alex Lopez, YFU’s Director of Travel, who unlocked his country of birth to his adopted US home
  • Scott Messing, YFU’s Vice President of Administration and the Exchange Experience
  • and Kirk Sobell, GMCW’s Director of Patron Services

Planning crew

These men and women worked tirelessly to make this historic journey possible. I have this photo framed on my desk as a reminder of what’s possible when people dream with one another, because, for many of this, the trip still feels like a dream.

I will write one last blog about our departure day and share some very special news of another visitor in Cuba, but as I close this Friday night in my mind, I cannot help but think of our friend Hemingway. It’s obvious to me why he fell in love with both countries.


The Day’s Takeaways:

  • Cuba seems to be in a perpetual state of “tug-of-war” with itself. On this day, I was reminded that the role of religion is just one of many unsettled questions for the nation and its people, but like most things in Cuba, the Cuban people find a way to navigate around the politics of any situation.
  • Dancing with people erases so much distance and division that politics can create. Whether with our Santeria dancers or the young people at the Bertolt Brecht Theater, laughing while we tried to match steps had us almost forget 50 years of division.
  • I am so lucky to work with incredible volunteers – thank you, Rick! – and a team of professionals – see that great looking group in the photo!

Previous Blogs:

Cuba: Day 6


Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.  

Day 6 – Thursday, July 16


No word could greater symbolize our voyage to Cuba during this historic time than the Spanish word for “hope.” That emotion would come crashing down on us like a ton of brinks on Day 6, as we visited Convento de Nuestra Senora de Belen, an 18th century convent in the middle of Old Havana, which now houses a senior center with a health clinic and pharmacy, physical therapy for the elderly, services for youth with disabilities, an eye care center, a location for meals for those in need, support for single mothers, occupational training and an onsite daycare for workers.


We were told that GMCW would sing for a group of senior citizens but that they had also prepared musical and dance numbers for us. As we walked into the central courtyard, more than 200 senior performers met us – they were in full costume and cheering loudly as we arrived.

I was invited to greet the group as YFU’s President and said that our journey so far had me drawing one simple conclusion: two peoples with so much to give to one another should no longer be kept apart. The audience erupted into applause, and I filled up with tears. To see hundreds of faces that had remembered life before our two countries stopped diplomatic relations was a stirring thought. What had these men and women seen over 50 years, and what esperanza did they have for this new future?


The Cuban performers were entrancing, throwing their entire hearts into a series of welcome performances. As GMCW concluded its set, many of the Cuban seniors joined them on stage, and then the entire audience broke out into a song for us again.

day 6_1

To hear hundreds of voices sing to us with tears running down their faces struck the most powerful chord of the week. One woman came up to me after the exchange, screaming “El Presidente! El Presidente!,” with tears rolling down her cheeks. Through an interpreter, she shared with me, “We’ve been waiting for you for 50 years!” – the time period of the embargo.

The senior citizens shared so many stories with us that day: stories of pain and loss, of children that had left for the United States, of relatives who still hoped to reunite, of a deep hope that perhaps a new day had dawned. It was the perfect scene to summarize so much of what we had seen. Esperanza indeed.

Later that day, we had a chance to walk around the city without guides. It was somewhat surreal to see a replica of our own Capitol Building, built originally as the site of the Cuban Parliament by Batista. Even more ironic, it is going through a similar renovation to its dome as is our own Capitol in Washington, DC. Starting this year, it will again be used as the seat of Parliament in Cuba, the first time since Castro’s Revolution in 1959.

Capitol replica

After our walk, we would visit the Museo de Bellas Artes, dedicated exclusively to Cuban artists from the mid-16th century through the modern day. I have always believed that the arts capture moments in history better than any other medium. To see the story of the Cuban people play out on canvas and in sculpture was among the best history lessons one could get in an hour.


Cuba is a nation shrouded in history. Ever since Spanish occupation, there has been a special nightly celebration from the 18th century San Carlos de La Cabana fortress, a tradition evoking the announcement of the closing of the gates of the city and of the channel at the entrance to the city’s bay. What a stunning view of Havana and another window into her soul.

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We ended the evening at a quaint jazz café, taking in even more music. The city and the country breathes its music.

As the day concluded, I found myself wondering about all the people of this island nation had seen and the genuine hope they’d expressed for the future. So many have asked what I think will happen once diplomatic relations are normalized. I’ll share those thoughts in my last blog post about Cuba. I ended this day just praying that the hope that we had seen on the faces of the senior citizens would be realized. They had indeed waited for 50 years. Could our two nations deliver on the promise? As President Clinton once famously said, “I still believe in a place called Hope.”

The Day’s Takeaways: 

  • It is indeed possible to have a flash mob/dance party with 200 senior citizens!
  • Our seniors often possess the greatest wisdom. Through their eyes, I understood the true meaning of hope.
  • Art tells a story that other media cannot. What would the canvases of the Cuban artists of tomorrow say about this time?
  • All of us on the trip wanted desperately to believe in the promise of esperanza. Could our governments fulfill the wish?

Previous Blogs: 

Cuba: Day 5


Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.  Day 5 – Wednesday, July 15

There are vivid reminders of the once closer ties between Cuba and the United States. Certainly some of that comes through the stories of those who remember the interaction pre-embargo, but as with so much of this trip, art, served as a great reminder of the ties that bind.

Ernest Hemingway fell in love with Cuba and lived much of the last part of his life there. It’s where he wrote “Old Man and the Sea,” as well as a “A Farewell to Arms.” We started day 5 with a visit to Hemingway’s home in Cuba. Located about 12 kilometers outside of Old Havana, Hemingway initially did not want to live in the home. His wife, however, worked to set up a paradise in Cuba before convincing him to make the move. It was exciting to see the house where this iconic US author had completed some of his best work.

For any one that loves the written word, to see where Hemingway wrote was a true thrill. Ironically, although his wife had a separate tower building/office built for him where he could see all of Havana, he liked to write standing up in a guest bedroom. On the site was Hemingway’s beloved boat “Pilar,” which in his time was docked at the nearby town of Cojimar, the inspiration for the “Old Man and the Sea.” In addition to the estate, which his wife donated completely furnished minus a few paintings to be a museum, we got a chance to see where his beloved pets were buried on the grounds. All of this helped to shape our impressions of the man who found a way to love both Cuba and the United States, regardless of policy differences. His example may serve us all well, at least that part of his example.

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After visiting the museum, we rode to have lunch at Bodega de las Brisas “Paladar” in Cojimar, a restaurant near the water that inspired his masterpiece. Local artist studios now take the place of other trade in this historic fishing village. It was exciting to see artists still trying to capture the beauty of the place as Hemingway had done decades before.

Later that afternoon, we returned to ICAP to have a discussion with leaders of CENESEX (the National Center for Sexual Education), the Cuban governmental agency that oversees the education and research of topics of human sexuality in Cuba. We received a presentation on LGBT rights in Cuba and were afforded a chance to ask some fairly pointed questions about the struggle that gay people experience in Cuba.

day 5_2

After the presentation, it was exciting for GMCW to sing with Mano a Mano, Cuba's first openly gay chorus. Mano a Mano was assembled differently than GMCW, which is a community, all volunteer chorus. Mano a Mano is supported by a grant from the government and its members are paid. It will be interesting to see if the model can sustain itself, but the performers themselves were fantastic. The US and Cuba choruses even performed together, as international media covered the whole event. I was excited to have our YFU volunteer, Rick Withem, chronicle this trip through his amazing photography. Not only was Rick an amazing documentarian for us, he brought his considerable skills as a YFU educator/host dad to bear in helping us navigate culture shock issues. Rick picked up some 20 new friends this trip! (He’s the one with the gray beard in these photos).

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Later that night, our hotel, Quinta Avenida Hotel, sponsored a concert for GMCW, setting up a stage in the lobby. We were so moved by the combination of rainbow and Cuban flags in the hotel. The men of GMCW were again in wonderful voice, and we were pleasantly surprised and touched to see some of the performers from our first day in the lobby to root us on. They asked musical as well as diplomatic questions; our efforts to break down barriers through music were starting to have an impact.

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Day 1 performers return

The exercise in going to Cuba was as much about people to people interaction as anything else. We were starting to see an impact despite the layers of political and social issues. I am so often struck by the simple power that YFU holds: bring people together and let the inherent desire for peace play out. While it’s often not that simple, sometimes the ingredients are right to have a transformative impact. I hope that this is what is happening through our visit to Cuba.

The Day’s Takeaways: 

  • The US and Cuba share a seminal artist in Ernest Hemingway. What can artists see that we can learn from in approaching diplomacy? How do they see beauty where we see only conflict, and what can we learn from their approach?
  • People to people exchanges have a chance to supersede politics. Our artist friends from day one wanted to support their new friends. Could we find a way to do that once we normalized relations?

Previous Blogs:

Cuba: Day 4


Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.  Day 4 – Tuesday, July 14

By Tuesday we had had some intense experiences and were grateful for a day that was mostly educational. At this point, the Chorus had sung so many formal and informal concerts; they were ready to let their voices rest.

We left our hotel at 8:30 am to travel to Las Terrazas, a rural experience of a sustainable development project in a mountain area located within the Sierra del Rosario biosphere reserve in a newly named province of Artemisa (created when they split the greater Havana area into a new set of provinces).


The area’s history is fascinating. Once serving as a coffee plantation, it was decimated after the fall of the Soviet Union took out much-needed resources. The Las Terrazas Community Project was developed to restore the area while providing jobs, and creating a new industry of “eco-tourism” for that part of Cuba.

UNESCO named it a world heritage site in 1985 in acknowledgement of the success of the effort.

We started our day with a presentation on the reserve and its importance as an economic driver for the region. What an exquisite and lush landscape, and what a contrast to Havana!

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After a brief bus trip through the reserve, we were fortunate enough to be able to take a brief swim in a sulfur water area. Crossing the footbridge, we got a chance to see why this was a popular eco-tourist hot spot. From a hotel nestled into the trees to smaller and more primitive huts, visitors to the area could swim, zip line or go hiking. Farm animals were raised in nearby houses to provide food for residents and tourists alike. It was stunning!

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It turns out that the Gay Men’s Chorus wouldn’t get a complete break, as they gave a mini-concert from a tree-tophutto those swimming with us.

Thea conducting

After lunch, we visited an area near the old coffee plantation and took in a studio of a local landscape artist. All in all, it was a nice diversion to what had been some deep thinking about Cuba-US relations the days before.

Later that night we would go to a local club and restaurant for dinner (and, of course, some more singing!). As we settled into the evening meal, the club’s local performer came out. This would become a moment when this being a YFU-sponsored trip would come in handy. As the performer entered the dining area, you can see the shock of many of our delegation. While the performer, herself, was black, her exaggerated makeup made her look as if she had come out in “black face.”

We had several African American delegates on our trip, and it created an atmosphere of some confusion. Some in our delegation left the restaurant for the hotel. The next day we were able to discuss with our Cuban guides the history of this type of performance in their country and to learn about some very different connotations. This gave us a chance to talk about YFU’s training called “Colored Glasses,” where we talk to exchange students about seeing a culture not through our own lens but of that of the host country being visited. I was proud of the dialogue and reminded that exchange is challenging even when the two nations don’t have as difficult a past as Cuba and the US. This would not be the first or the last of the culture shock on our trip!

The Day’s Takeaways:

  • Nature is never so far gone that something beautiful cannot emerge from the ashes.
  • Interpreting culture is never easy. We bring so much of our own history and experiences into our travels. It’s not easy but so vital to try to see a people through their own lens as much as we do through that of our own. This is why YFU exists! 

Previous Blogs: 

Cuba: Day 3


Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.  Day 3 – Monday, July 13

Reading about the Cuban Revolution helped me understand some of the positive things this movement brought to the Cuban people. For instance, the nation’s near 98 percent literacy rate combined with their near universal access to health care are laudable attributes for any society. Day 3 of our journey also brought reminders of just how “controlled” Cuba’s system can be.

We started the day with a mandatory visit to the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the People (ICAP). The session, which focused on Cuban/US relations, is a required component of all trips to Cuba by citizens from the US. I had met Kenia Serrano Puig, ICAP’s President, briefly the day before, but didn’t have a strong sense, at that point, of the organization’s mission. Its expressed purpose is to reach out to the international community and form ties of friendship between Cuba and citizens of other countries who are either sympathetic to, or open minded about, Cuba’s post-revolutionary ambitions. We now would have an attendant from ICAP attend most of our concerts and presentations throughout the rest of the week.

Cuba Day 3_1

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC would have two performances today: one at the National Library of Cuba, a significant cultural facility for the nation situated very near Revolution Square. The performance itself was held in a lovely intimate theater. Many members of Cuba’s LGBT community came out for the performance, and while the Chorus was “in great voice,” as it was throughout the trip, the real power of this session happened in the question and answer period following the performance. One gentleman jumped up and excitedly said he never thought he’d see the day a gay chorus was performing in the National Library. Another gentleman asked our delegation how it had formed a safe gay community in the United States and what the path might look like to “feeling heard” by one’s government and people. It was a powerful reminder that the yearning for human rights is inherent in people.

Cuba Day 3_2

After a brief bus ride, we made our way to Casade la Cultura – or the House of Culture – in Arroyo Naranjo. Sections of each city have Houses of Culture to organize activities for neighborhoods or broader regions. These government-sponsored arts centers organize classes in dance, music, theater, etc. We were met there by several international camera crews. At this point, word of our visit was starting to generate some greater media attention. The House of Culture itself has a courtyard, classroom space and large, sky-blue central gathering/performance space. The electricity was out during much of our visit, which meant the major source or circulated air – fans on the wall – were out of commission. All of the artists – GMCW and the young people who performed for us – were in great spirits as we shared performances as a sign of greeting for one another.

Cuba Day 3_3

Our attendant from ICAP led the audience in a song of greeting for us. This would be the first of many such stage-managed moments he would lead, and while our delegation was aware of how differently this was handled in Cuba versus the US, we never doubted the sincerity of warmth of the everyday Cubans called upon to express these moments of welcome.

Audience sings to us

Later that evening we would attend a block party organized by a local CDR, or Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. Originally established by Fidel Castro to provide block-by-block monitoring of counter-Revolutionary activities, we were told the modern-day CDR has morphed into units to help organize community festivals, voluntary community projects and organize community attendance at mass rallies. That night, I had a chance to greet residents of the CDR, and our delegation was received with songs by children and performances by adults, including a gifted flutist who was attending the National University of the Arts in Havana.

Cuba Day 3_4

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We spent a few hours sharing songs and refreshments with the designated CDR, as well as bringing toys and other supplies for the children of the neighborhood. While I think many in our delegation initially struggled with how this neighborhood organization played a role in Cuba, we soon defaulted to a universal truth: governments and people are different. We danced and laughed a great deal that night, and as we boarded our buses for the hotel, thought much less about the differences in our political systems and much more about the commonalities of two peoples seeking peace.

The Day’s Takeaways: 

  • All people yearn for community, which can take many different forms depending on culture.
  • The quest to be valued as a person will always find a voice, even when systems or society is not quite ready to hear it.
  • Even if we disagree on how a society is organized, we are wired to want to find a place of unity – even if it’s simply through dancing or sharing a song.  Sometimes it just takes us decades to get there.

 **Series will continue on Monday, picking-up with Day 4.

Previous Blogs: 

Cuba: Day 2


Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.  Day 2 – Sunday, July 12

We tell all YFU students that there is an arch to their exchange experience, with the first days being the “honeymoon” period. You spend so much time planning for and thinking about an exchange experience that you almost can’t believe you’re actually in your destination country. That was certainly my experience on our first full day in Cuba.

We started our very balmy morning with a tour of “Old Havana,” the historic center of the city first built up during the period of colonization from Spain. UNESCO declared this area of town a World Heritage site in 1982, and it was easy to see the reasons. The architectural landscape of Old Havana is a case study in extremes. Recent efforts had some of the historic structures brought back to life while others looked as if one slight touch of a hand could topple them down.

Day 2 Cuba_archetecture

The City Historian’s office has been spearheading a building-by-building renovation of the historic structures. This was also the first moment that the Cuban Revolution and its history struck me. We were told by our incredible guide, Elisio, that a famous visual artist had struck a deal with the early Castro government to spend her own money to renovate a major mansion as long as she could live in it until her death. This was the only deal struck, as we were told, it went against the ideals of the Revolution.

Old Havana, in many ways, encapsulated a history of this nation: from colonization of the Spanish and British to the period when Fulgencio Batista first served as the elected president of Cuba and later held it as a dictator until the Cuban Revolution. You could see the triumphs and the scars etched into the buildings, with each facade telling some part of the story of this remarkable nation.

Day 2 Cuba_Mural, Trumpeter

After lunch, we traveled by bus en route to Casa de La Amistad (House of Friendship), where we would present the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC for their first concert. On our way over, we stopped at one of the Cuban Revolution’s most signature monuments in Revolution Square. The equivalent of our Washington Monument, the square is dominated by a tribute to Jose Marti, a poet and journalist who is seen by many as the “Founding Father” of Cuba. Opposite to that monument is Cuba’s Ministry of Defense, which is emblazoned with the image of Camilo Cienfuegos. Although he officially stepped down as Cuban President in 2008, Castro is omnipresent in Cuba. Speeches refer to him as simply “Fidel,” with a messiah-like connotation. Everyday Cubans we got a chance to speak to believe nothing significant will change in Cuba until after his death. It was a stark reminder of the impact – for better or for worse – that one human being can have on a society. I found it chilling.

Day 2 Cuba_fidel, monument

The story of Case de La Amistad is one of love and scandal. For our delegation that day, it was only the former. There we shared a concert with Mariana de Gonitch Chorus, a group of young Cuban artists who had prepared an entire set for us in English. I had a chance to address the crowd, talking about the importance of this trip at this moment in history. Throughout the trip, we had a profound sense of the importance of being in Cuba in this specific week: one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. It would play significantly in our experience. The Mariana de Gonitch Chorus immediately blew us away with their talent and warmth, no more so than when they broke into song with our US National Anthem immediately following a performance of their own. Tears rolled down our delegations’ face, as we knew that singing the US anthem would have been unheard of in year’s past. Throughout the next two hours, we shared songs of our respective countries and ended up singing “We Are the World.” One couldn’t help but wonder if the promise of the lyrics would hold true for the relationship between our two nations after so many years of division.

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We tell YFU students that they should take advantage of a country’s iconic culture when visiting. Later that night we concluded our day with a performance by the Buena Vista Social Club at El Tablao de Pancho restaurant. Many of the lead singers of the group have been performing with it since before the Cuban Revolution. I couldn’t help but imagine what they had seen over the past 50 years and what they would hope to see as our two nations tried to find a way back together. We were even invited to share the stage with them.

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It is said that art, in its many forms, is the quickest way to the truth. I ended Day 2 wondering what further truths I would find by sharing our music, our struggles and our stories.


The Day’s Takeaways:

  • Architecture can be one of the most objective storytellers in a country.  Battles and triumphs often find a way to etch themselves into buildings in a society.
  • One person has the potential – for better or worse – to forever alter the lives of thousands.
  • Language barriers are surmountable when we share culture from the heart. It’s amazing what hearing one’s own national anthem sung by another people can do to erase feelings of isolation and division.
  • Art and artists are sometimes the best ambassadors. Sharing culture through song, even if you don’t understand the meaning of the lyrics, finds a way to stretch out a hand to another human being.


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Cuba: Day 1


Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU's first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.  Day 1 – Saturday, July 11

90 miles. As a former resident of western New York state, I would drive 90 miles regularly to get from my home in Olean to Buffalo to fly out of the airport or to take in a show. That amount of mileage for anyone who has ever lived in a rural area is as common as being stuck on the Beltway for two hours in Washington, DC.

But 90 miles had a much larger significance for me as I woke up at Miami International Airport Hotel at 3 a.m. with 20-plus delegates from Youth For Understanding and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC who were headed to Havana, Cuba – 90 miles away. We would be in the air only about half an hour, far shorter than the four hours it took to get through all the paperwork and logistics of our charter flight to the capital city of Cuba.

cuba airport

The first sign that this was not a normal airline trip came through the many hours of prepping to simply board the plane. While some travel restrictions have been lifted, you can still only take charter flights to Cuba from the United States. It gave a sense of anticipation to the beginning of our journey, and, if I’m being honest, heightened my expectation for what I might see when I arrived. For more than 50 years, the US embargo of Cuba had created an invisible fence between two neighbors. I couldn’t help but wonder what existed on the other side of a policy-created wall and whether it would live up to the reporting we see in the United States media. The guys from the Chorus decided to whittle away some of the time by singing an impromptu performance at the airport. Their roles as musical ambassadors had already begun.

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I had the great luxury of sitting with Dr. Thea Kano, GMCW’s Artistic Director, on the plane ride over. YFU and GMCW share a common element to our missions: both organizations believe that when we open up our hearts and minds to the “other,” something transformative can happen. For YFU, this trip wasn’t a political statement: it was a chance to live deeply our mission: bringing people who did not understand one another closer together. I have seen the impact of people to people exchanges so many times at YFU. This trip had the potential to really move the needle for those that participated.

We had been planning this trip together for months. To sit on the plane at this moment was somewhat surreal. About a half hour in, Cuba came into focus through our plane window.

Approaching Cuba

Landing in Havana was an experience in contrasts. To look out our window on the tarmac and to see an American Airlines plane, reminded me that much of the rest of the world has no restrictions on coming to Cuba. To have a jet titled “American” smacked of irony. Getting our bags reminded me of the impact of the embargo and the recent loosening of restrictions. Mixed among our bags were medical supplies, wheelchairs and electronics, all neatly wrapped in plastic blue bubbles.

Airport Cuba 2

Alex Lopez, YFU’s Travel Director and a native Cuban, was the architect of our trip. I would later come to realize the profound role Alex has played over 40 years in trying to bring the Cuban and US people together. He greeted us at the airport and got us settled into buses for the ride to the hotel, where we were supposed to receive an arrival orientation. It was a lot of fun to travel in the shoes of exchange students who go through a similar journey: pre-departure and arrival orientations, all administered through folks at YFU. We were living a sliver of their experience.

We would stop at a park and for lunch before getting to the hotel. So much of Cuba is trapped in a time warp. The park, full of children and a few adults, were playing tug to loud, thumping music and seemed more than a little curious about two busloads of Americans who had invaded their summer-time fun.


It was, in effect, a cultural “stare off.” Two peoples who have been kept apart for so long. And here we were. What else would the trip hold?

We had lunch at El Tocororo Restaurant, housed in a former mansion in the Miramar section of the city. An eclectic space, it has been frequented by artists, writers and other cultural leaders. The walls were adorned with corkboards ascribed with the names of famous guests. We were invited to add our delegation to the wall, drawing our shared symbol of the merger of both of our flags with the rainbow/pride heart. It would be nice to think our presence will be a part of the place for a while.


As I mentioned in my previous blog, we were greeted at the hotel by both the United States and Pride flags. The hotels are government-run in Cuba, which made the gesture seem that much bigger.

Later in the evening we headed to Paladar La California for dinner. The leaders of our delegation were privileged to share an intimate dinner with Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the Charge d’Affaires at the now US Embassy in Cuba (it was still the US Interests Section when we were there). It was fascinating to hear Ambassador DeLaurentis describe this time of transition in diplomatic relations. This was his third stint at Cuba. I asked him why he kept coming back (other than being assigned, of course!), and he said he has always believed there was a way through the political standoff, and he wanted to be help if could. He seems cautiously hopeful. “Hope” would be a theme for our trip.


We spent two hours at the restaurant before heading back before a very long day two. The Ambassador inquired about the music we would be bringing to Cuba. Our delegation was more than happy to oblige his curiosity with what was an anthem for our trip: “Make Them Hear You.”

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Would we actually “hear” one another on this trip? We weren’t sure, but the early clues of day one made me curious to find out.

The Day’s Takeaways:

  • A short distance can be a huge hurdle when mistrust, stereotypes and a lack of real-life information stand in one’s way.
  • The human need to help another cannot be embargoed. Watching medical supplies show up in the baggage claim reminded me that political policies have a truly human impact.
  • The joy of children playing tug in the summer knows no international boundaries. If we can find a way to capture that innocence and curiosity of “the other,” we have a shot at deeper understanding.
  • If there is a hope, there is a chance at peace.


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Flags Are Powerful Symbols


A note from YFU USA President & CEO Michael E. HillToday, the Cuban and US flags will be raised over their respective outposts in each country’s capital, marking the transition from having “interests sections” to full diplomatic embassies.

Just last week, I was privileged to join a US delegation of Youth For Understanding and Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC participants on a weeklong visit to Cuba. Our seven days in and around Havana were packed with educational, cultural and deeply meaningful encounters. I’ll be writing about my experiences all week but wanted to share one image on the day that flags will fly as a symbol of hope and promise here in Washington, DC and in Havana. Cuba Flags

This trip marked firsts for both YFU and GMCW. For YFU, it was our first adult study tour in our nearly 65-year history. For GMCW, it was a historic invitation to be the first openly gay choral group to be invited to sing on the island. For both organizations, however, it signified something much deeper: an opportunity to break down barriers while raising intercultural understanding about LGBTQ and human rights through song and deep personal engagement.

When we arrived at our hotel – which was government run, as all hotels are in Cuba – we were greeted by a rainbow/pride flag – the sign of LGBTQ people – flying alongside the US flag. We were told it was the first time a Pride Flag had ever been flown at a government building in Cuba. To say we were floored by its presence would be an understatement, as there are actually very few Pride Flags even available in Cuba outside of their “International Day Against Homophobia.”

Flags are powerful symbols. So, too, are people who reach a hand out to one another after 50 years of bitter disagreement. I look forward to sharing my thoughts throughout the week, but find myself thinking today of a journey our Founder, Dr. Rachel Andresen, took to South Africa at a time when that country was going through renewed diplomatic relations. Ironically, she, too, took a chorus – the YFU Chorale – to spread a message of hope, love and intercultural understanding.

May our respective flags serve as a reminder that people engaging with one another’s cultures have a shot at changing the world for the better.

Cuba: A Trip of a Lifetime


Interview with Alex Lopez, YFU Travel DirectorCuba may be only 90 miles from Florida, but for half a century, it's been largely off-limits to most Americans. Since 2011, Americans have been allowed to go to Cuba on tours run by licensed companies like Interplanner, YFU’s Adult Study Tour provider. Recently, President Obama asked the Treasury Department to expand permissions for travel to Cuba, though general tourism on one’s own will still be forbidden. This renewed attention on Cuba has many would-be travelers wondering what the island neighbor has to offer. We talked to our own expert, YFU Travel Director and native of Cuba Alex Lopez to find out. 

Alex Cuba

YFU: What do you think participants come away with after a YFU Adult Study Tour to Cuba? 

Lopez: Participants will be surprised to learn that the Cuban people have a great respect and admiration for the American people. Travelers to Cuba find that Cubans can easily separate politics from culture and appreciate people for who they are.

Cuba travel does not whitewash the challenges that Cuban people face. YFU travelers will experience the real Cuba, filled with culture, creativity, art and loving people. They also get to see the reality of Cuban living standards, which are often difficult and impoverished. The program changes beliefs and attitudes and allows people to look past politics and into the heart and soul of a culture and its reality. In my 37 years in the travel industry, I have never seen a single travel experience change so many lives as a visit to Cuba does.

YFU: What would you say to tour participants about the citizens of Cuba? 

Lopez: Cubans are friendly, warm, communicative, enthusiastic and hospitable people. It is uncommon to meet a Cuban who is not outgoing and fond of festivals, music and especially dancing. Most Cubans find it easy to joke around about almost anything, even hardships and difficulties. 

The Cuban people have endured 53 years of a U.S. economic embargo that has severely burdened the entire population. The Cuban people have always welcomed American visitors and have been able to separate the political differences between the U.S. YFU will be a great ambassador delegation, and who knows, maybe soon we will be the first to open the way for a student exchange program between both nations helping to heal the wounds of decades of isolation.

YFU: This is a really unique opportunity for Americans to travel to Cuba. What parts of the tour do you like the most? 

Lopez: The island has nine United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world heritage sites. They’re architectural gems that have not been discovered by Americans from this generation.

You’ll never forget your visit to the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. The collection ranges from the traditional to the modern. It’s as good as any museum in New York.

Participants will also enjoy the Cuban cuisine. It is much more inventive than just black beans and rice. Because of the embargo, they don’t always have the best ingredients, but they sure make do. Paladares, privately owned restaurants that are often run by families (sometimes out of their homes), have become popular in recent years. They are intended to give tourists a truly authentic Cuban experience.

YFU: Why should YFU alumni or anyone else travel to Cuba? 

Lopez: The announcement to re-establish diplomatic relations makes this trip a historical time to visit Cuba. It is the most sensual island in the Caribbean and has been frozen in time for American visitors. Cuba is full of friendly people, amazing geography, and has 250-plus museums and 500 years of historical sites. Havana’s architecture is magnificent, and dance, culture and great cuisine are everywhere. This is a truly educational experience!

Learn how you can join Lopez, along with YFU USA's President & CEO in Cuba this summer! YFUUSA.ORG/TOURS

*Traveling under the People to People General License.