Lend a Hand in Havana
How to enter embargoed Cuba to give humanitarian aid—and not just sip mojitos.
Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear My Goodness, I've heard that travel to Cuba for humanitarian missions is legal and allowed by the U.S. government. My concern is that a lot of the groups calling themselves humanitarian show up and simply hand out a bottle of water or two—that they're actually just ways for people to be tourists. Are there any worthwhile programs that will actually allow me to go to Cuba and be of help?
—Jonathan in New York
You're right that the restrictions the United States has placed on travel to Cuba over nearly 50 years have caused some travelers and groups to stretch the meaning of humanitarian. The adjective means characteristic of a humanitarian, someone devoted to the promotion of human welfare and the advancement of social reforms.
You may find yourself, perhaps surprisingly, in sympathy on this issue with former President George W. Bush. He cut back the Clinton administration's easing of limits on Cuban travel because he intended to decrease what he described as "deception" by sponsors of humanitarian trips to Cuba. Bush was one of nine American presidents (counting the short-termer Gerald Ford) bedeviled by Fidel Castro. The intention of the trade embargo and travel ban was to undermine and eventually topple the Castro government by denying the country U.S. dollars.
Foreign policy based on the principle "he's got to die one of these days" has not worked out; Fidel has outlived five of those U.S. presidents. Many Americans risk a hefty civil fine and possible criminal penalty by skipping the application for a U.S. Treasury Department license for Cuban travel and flying to the island from Mexico or from another Caribbean island.
But you're looking for a genuine humanitarian project, something by which you can travel legally and in some way directly benefit Cuban people. Whatever your religious preference, you probably would find that religious groups do more than hand out a couple of bottles of water. Several groups have teams that go for two or three weeks to complete specific projects.
The Friends United Mission supports the small Cuban Quaker community. A typical project is rebuilding meetinghouses destroyed or damaged in the destructive 2008 hurricane season. Carpentry skills are appreciated, but a team leader would be willing to teach you.
Several Jewish groups support restoration of Cuba's Jewish cemeteries and houses of worship, as well as delivering medicine and food to the small Jewish community. (Before the revolution, there were 15,000 Jews on the island; now there are 1,500.)
Pastors for Peace, representing several Protestant denominations, takes medicine and food to the island. The Catholic group Caritas focuses on aid to elderly Cubans and children with learning disabilities. They use volunteers.
Americans somehow find ways to follow their own path to the forbidden island. Baylor, a Christian university, has sent its baseball team and donations of baseball equipment. The supplies are probably much appreciated, but it would be surprising if the Baylor team beat the Cubans.
Constance Casey is a former New York City Department of Parks gardener and writes the monthly "Species" column for Landscape Architecture Magazine.
Photograph of Red Cross rescuers in Batabano, Cuba, by Jorge Rey/Getty Images.