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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.