It may be easier than ever to visit to Cuba, but is volunteering the way to get there?
If this headline caught your eye, chances are that volunteering fuels your travel and you have your eye on a trip to Cuba. You may have already tried to navigate the new visa and general license process and perhaps looked into some of the many person-to-person cultural exchange programs that would take you there. But if you’re really passionate about volunteering, that may be where you got stuck, because it’s not as easy as you may think to take a volunteer trip to Cuba.
While volunteering does fall under many of the 12 approved reasons to obtain a general license to Cuba, it’s difficult to find volunteering programs that will actually get you there, for a number of reasons. Sure, many cultural exchange programs, such as GeoVisions or Global Exchange, include volunteer opportunities as part of their trips, but the focus for these types of programs is really more on the cultural interaction and education—any volunteering is usually for a short-term or single-day project and geared more toward helping you interact with Cuban communities. But if you are more interested in being part of a longer-term project or you aren’t really a tour group kind of a person, it can be hard to find alternatives. Not only does Cuba’s limited Internet access pose a major hurdle to organizing a volunteer itinerary before you go (a crucial step in the visa application process), but lingering tensions between the Cuban and the U.S. governments—especially in regard to aid groups—also mean that tracking down a mutually-approved organization without personal contacts in Cuba can be almost impossible.
Good news: It’s not actually impossible. Small organizations in both countries are bringing together like-minded people from each nation to support the arts, health, and the environment in Cuba, as well as lay a foundation of goodwill that hopefully will pave the way to ever-ameliorating diplomatic relations. Here, we’ve rounded up three unique—and sometimes niche—volunteer opportunities that will allow you not only to work side-by-side with Cuban counterparts but also to dig into a project that is actually useful. Voluntourism? Sure, but trust us, you won’t just be another tour group painting the same school building for the 100th time.
With programs in 18 locations around the world and over 200 different communities, Global Volunteers has established itself as an organization with a proven track record of sustainable impact. In Cuba, its programs run for one or two weeks and, while they do include some person-to-person cultural exchange activities, the trips are primarily geared toward volunteering. The organization works with local communities, leaders, and families to ensure that the work volunteers participate in is positive, needed, and properly managed. Because these are ongoing projects, volunteers are essentially links in a chain dedicated to lasting impact. All of Global Volunteers’ Cuba programs include English conversation and tutoring and, depending on the needs of each community, some work maintaining community gardens or buildings, participating in a women’s cooperative sewing or knitting circle, helping to glaze pottery and maintain pottery facilities, and/or working with and visiting senior citizens.
First-Hand Aid isn’t a volunteer organization, but rather a medical and humanitarian relief corporation that relies on volunteer support. Volunteers sign up to travel to Cuba carrying medical supplies and technology and then deliver them to the different hospitals and families they work with. Don’t worry, it’s legal—First-Hand Aid is recognized as an official relief corporation by both the Cuban and U.S. governments. But the corporation prefers to hand-deliver its supplies to ensure that they make it to the people who need them most. Furthermore, delivering supplies directly to Cubans gives volunteers an opportunity to come face-to-face with the people on the other side of the trade embargo. Trips generally last a week.
Bat Conservation with Animal Experience International
Part education, part volunteering, Animal Experience International’s bat conservation program may not be for everyone. But biology nerds and animal lovers will welcome the opportunity for a hands-on introduction to chiroptology and the opportunity to participate in field research, bat identification, and data collection. As tourism becomes more popular in Cuba and development has begun to threaten natural spaces, conservation efforts like this—which rely heavily on volunteer efforts—are more important than ever.