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.
Some humanitarian groups were founded specifically to challenge the travel restrictions. In the late 1960s, idealistic Americans, mostly without the required papers, traveled with the Venceremos Brigade to help in the harvest of sugar cane.
Another sugar-related and nonreligious group, the M.S. Hershey Foundation, brings medical supplies to the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in Havana. In the early 1900s, chocolate patriarch Milton Hershey built a sugar refinery and a town in Cuba named, naturally, Central Hershey. The foundation leads a tour that visits Ernest Hemingway's house but also takes tourists to the Valley of the Sugar Mills to see restored plantations. Some would argue that reforming sugar plantation conditions was one of the goals of the Cuban Revolution.
There's one Cuban aid project with a particular charm and special meaning for an island with many musicians. Piano tuner Benjamin Treuhaft has shipped a couple of hundred donated pianos to Cuba. He takes teams of tuners to fix those and also Cuban pianists' instruments that have gone off-key from tropical humidity and wood-chewing insects. Treuhaft, whose parents famously challenged authority, began his charity to flout the trading ban. (Treuhaft's mother, Jessica Mitford, was the daughter of an English peer, a Communist, and the author of The American Way of Death. Her husband, Robert Treuhaft, was a California labor lawyer and civil rights activist.) Treuhaft has been issued a Commerce Department license allowing the export of the pianos to Cuba. He says one of the conditions is that the pianos are "not to be used for re-export or the purposes of torture."
If you're looking for education about Cuba, the San Francisco-based group Global Exchange has a wide array of themed Cuban trips, with tours centered around music, the environment, Afro-Cuban culture, and medicine. The group is a human rights organization rather than strictly humanitarian. You'll be lectured on the folly of America's Cuba policy.
Whether organized into tour groups or not, most travelers bring large supplies of over-the-counter pills to give to Cubans. By all accounts, the country has a good system of medical care but serious shortages of medication.
Whatever the auspices of your Cuban trip, don't underestimate the value of just going and talking to people. Human welfare, you may argue, is not advanced by Americans drinking mojitos and dancing to Afro-Cuban music. Maybe the world is not a measurably better place because you go to see the island's bee hummingbird (the smallest living bird) and other natural wonders, fortuitously preserved by the fact that the Cuban economy has not exactly been a powerhouse.
Humanitarianism is also kindness, sympathy to other human beings. You'll be doing a service by keeping your eyes open and bringing back an accurate picture of what life there is like. Cubans are, in general, markedly warmly disposed to Americans. (The two places in the world where Americans are most appreciated, in my experience, are Havana and Hanoi.) You'll be particularly warmly received if you can talk about chess, baseball, or even Desi Arnaz.