Grand Circle Foundation Launches First Program to Cuba
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Grand Circle Foundation Launches First Program to Cuba

Historic, fully authorized "People to People" program departed November 8

In August, Grand Circle Foundation was pleased to announce that it had been licensed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the branch of the U.S. Treasury that regulates travel to Cuba, to offer fully authorized "People-to-People" programs to Cuba.

The first cultural program ever to be operated entirely by the Foundation, a "People-to-People" program is an educational/humanitarian journey that focuses on authentic, meaningful encounters with the Cuban people.

Among those to join the initial departure on November 8, 2011, was Grand Circle Foundation Managing Director Maury Peterson, who reports that the program was successful in its goal of bringing Cuban and American cultures closer together. "The people were warm, welcoming, and very open to meeting Americans," she says. "When we told them we were Americans, they couldn't believe we were there legally. We had a mutual interest in each other."

The Cuban itinerary included several personal interactions with local residents. For example, the group was welcomed into a number of homes—such as that of a man in sixties who could remember the revolution and who opened his refrigerator to reveal just a few items, which he cooked on hotplates that Maury can only describe as "ancient."

On another home visit, the Foundation donors split into smaller groups for a more up-close interaction with the family. The home Maury visited was the Soviet-era, one-bedroom apartment of an artist that he shared with his mother, wife, and baby. "He welcomed us as if we lived there," Maury reveals. "He creates his art on the kitchen table of this little tiny apartment. The artists are forced to be very creative due to the limited supplies they have to work with."

In Havana, the group visited a senior center at Iglesia de la Merced, where the Foundation group delighted in interacting with local peers. "It was magical on a number of levels," says Maury. "They sang a song for us, and we sang 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' for them. Then the seniors started getting up one at a time and doing solos, until everyone joined in and sang together."

The arts were the focus of the next leg of the itinerary, as the group ventured into the countryside to the town of Cienfuegos. In this artistic center, they entered into a spirited political discussion with artists and writers from Union of Workers and Artists (UNEAC). "It was a fantastic discussion," says Maury. The artists told us about how tolerance has opened up somewhat and how they express dissent in their art."

The Foundation group also visited artists' homes and were treated to a performance by local people of all ages, including an a cappella chorus. "I was shocked by the quality and talent in this tiny town in rural Cuba," says Maury, who also notes that the group treasured an opportunity to interact with the performers afterward.

Another opportunity to mingle with performing artists occurred on the group's return to Havana, where they attended a rehearsal of the Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, a world-famous dance company that combines traditional ballet with Cuban folkloric dances. "Participants loved being up close and personal with the dancers," Maury reports.

Toward the end of their program, a political discussion with Gloria Berbena, an American who works for Cuba's U.S. Special Interest Section, was eye-opening for all concerned. "Officers are not allowed to leave Havana, and the only people she's used to dealing with are Americans and Cubans who are unhappy with the Cuban situation," Maury explains. "Our group explained to her that outside of Havana, we found Cubans to be generally happy people. Yes, there was discontent with some things, like running out of rations, but they make the best of their situation."

She points out further that this encounter demonstrated how the "People-to-People" concept is making a difference in people's lives, as an American who lives and works in Cuba gained new insights about the Cuban people, thanks to this program.

Travelers, too, were touched by their experiences in this once-forbidden land just 90 miles off the Florida coast. For instance, there was Dulce Garcia, a Cuban-born participant, who, at age 85, was able to go back and visit the house where she was born—a very moving experience for the entire group.

And there were participants Ron and Judy Endeman, who had read a story in the Los Angeles Times about Fidel Babani, a world-ranked Cuban Scrabble player. Ron and Judy brought Fidel two Spanish-language Scrabble boards and tracked him down through the group's visit to the synagogue. When Fidel came to the hotel one evening to thank Ron and Judy, the group enjoyed a fascinating discussion with him about his 22 years of service as one of Fidel Castro's bodyguards.

Wherever they went, the Americans found an entrepreneurial people who don't have much but who are very family-oriented, who appreciate their relationships, and who are willing to find creative ways, from working as repairmen to making money as musicians and artists, to provide for their families. "They are limited in what they have," Maury concludes, "but their culture is so rich."

Featured in our December 2011 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.