There is a lot of hype in the media right now about Cuba, especially in the United States as both countries work to normalize their relations. Amidst all the publicity, I got curious about how to create meaningful, authentic travel in Cuba. I thought to myself, “I want to go, but how do I go to make a difference?”
I started with sharing some practical information on how to travel to Cuba as an American before the ban is lifted, and itineraries for a how to create a truly genuine and educational experience.
But one of the most important questions was yet to be answered: With a large influx of American tourists soon to flood onto the island with little infrastructure – how can we best benefit the fragile nation in its era of change through travel?
With pure intentions, I reached out to several individuals working with Cuba on the development of cuentapropismo or entrepreneurship, literally meaning “working on your own account.” I also tried to get in touch with several people who are deeply involved with the foundations of social enterprise in the country.
A strange thing happened – no one truly answered me… And although this would normally sadden or frustrate me, it actually led me toward answering my own question. Which was – that I simply asked the question too soon.
Even though the information I am after is not yet available because of slow growth, lack of internet connection, and much, much more – there is not denying that there is development happening in the country toward the trend of social enterprise. I see the signs everywhere.
According to a report from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security (MLSS), there are now over 504,613 privately-owned cuentapropristas on the island. These business owners are spunky, spitfire entrepreneurs that are forming their own futures in the midst of slow growth, as proven by headlines like Internet ‘Offline Packages’ a Hit in Cuba’s Black Market, Self Employed Mixing Technology and Creativity as They Navigate Private Sector Restrictions in Cuba and Cuba’s Budding Entrepreneurs Travel A Rocky Road Toward Success.
There are also international groups working hard to help shape the future economy by meeting socialism “in the middle” and offering social enterprise models as a possible tool for Cuba. This way, cuentapropristas can still thrive while complying with the government’s agenda toward social good. In fact, several people I reached out to were about to attend or had just returned from a summit of some sort related to the topic in Cuba.
Eric Leenson and Julia Sagebien, co-founders of Socially Responsible Enterprise and Local Development in Cuba (SRELDC), shared in The Stanford Social Innovation Review –Winter 2015 Edition that,
“In Cuba, state leaders are acutely aware of the dark underside of economic change, but the state lacks the resources to redress most of these negative externalities. To help confront that challenge, some of the country’s newly minted entrepreneurs and cooperative leaders have begun to conduct business on a social enterprise model. In every part of Cuba, they are exploring the boundary between the private economy and the social economy—between private interest and collective well-being.
Cuba engenders a wide range of responses, from utopian to dystopian. For many people, Cuba has been a beacon that shines brightly on behalf of social justice. For others, it has been a tropical gulag. But the reality in Cuba today requires us to look beyond those stereotypes. The country’s emerging market enterprises, though hampered by serious constraints, could provide a laboratory for the application of socially responsible business models.”
I can’t deny that the idea of “meeting in the middle” has great potential – where enterprise and social missions can be studied in what is perhaps the most exciting test lab that exists for understanding the economic effects of social entrepreneurship.
This is exciting potential. But this does not mean much right now for the traveler. We are still far away from a slew of B Corps with fancy English websites that showcase their social missions and volunteer opportunities for travelers. So without access to information, how should we travel to Cuba now?
Eric Leenson sums it up in a recent article for Huffington Post, sharing that,
“Opportunities between American and Cuban businesses, NGOs, cultural and sports organizations, and academic institutions are certainly plentiful, and will be more so in the long-term. However, the media frenzy has overlooked the inconvenient truth that working in Cuba is still extremely difficult for foreigners, and will remain so for a long time to come, especially for Americans.”
The fact is that DIY travel to support social enterprises is still hard in Cuba, because of the slow development and mobilization of these types of coops, NGO’s and true B Corp models that exist elsewhere. The travel ban is also not completely lifted.
However, we don’t necessarily need to wait until everything is perfectly set up either. We can and should travel to the country in order to explore this very subject, so we can share information on sustainable travel through up and coming movements in Cuba for others to use. This is indeed a social mission!
The Guidelines – Make an Impact, Share your Story
Make sure that while you are there, you have solid intentions and outcomes to share. You will need to document your project and reason for being in Cuba, so do your homework on the current restrictions and make all necessary arrangements so you comply with regulations. Your travel should be full of interaction, learning, exploration, and support for the local people. Find an industry you are passionate about and professionally involved with, research its growth in the country, and then investigate it further while you are there by interviewing key “game changers” currently breaking the boundaries in Cuba.
Here are some ideas to get you started in and around Havana:
Technology – contact Award-Winning Cuban Blogger Yoani Sanchez and meet with her to get her perspective.
Art – visit and document your perspective of the Fuster Project in Jaimanitas, a small coastal neighborhood that is covered in art by painter and ceramist, Jose Fuster. Or walk through Hamels Alley in Centro Habana with a local artist.
Handy-crafts – stopover at the Centro Cultural Antiguos Almacenes market where privately-run vendors in over 300 booths sell arts, handicrafts and other Cuban products.
Healthcare and Charitable Outreach – visit the restored 18th-century Convento de Nuestra Señora de Belén, a social welfare program that includes a health clinic, services for the elderly and disabled youth, eye care, meals for those in need, support for single mothers and more.
Cuisine – talk to local restaurant owners of newly opened shabby-chic paladares (unofficial restaurants in private homes, which are not endorsed by the government) and get their perspective on their creative establishments.
Festivals and fairs are also a great reason to travel to Cuba in support of the Cuban people to document their customs and engage through cultural exchange. Here are a few of my favorites:
Camagüey Carnival – February in Camagüey
Turnat – Evento de Turismo de Naturaleza (promoting Cuba’s eco-tourism) – September in Pinar del Rio
International New Latin American Film Festival – December in Havana
Fiart International Crafts Fair – December in Havana
Jazz Plaza International Jazz Festival – December in Havana
For a full list of other festivals on everything from Magician Festivals to Cowboy Parties throughout the island – I like autenticacuba.com
It’s true that while traveling in a country where private enterprises are so new, that simply walking in to support them is indeed life-changing for the owner. But don’t just stop there – do your homework, stay open-minded, have meaningful exchanges with the owners of cuentapropistas, and share those interviews with the world.
The media is waiting for the story – go find a meaningful one to share.
Feature Photo Credit: Flicker – escalepade, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License