For decades, some Cuban exiles have felt disdain at the thought of visiting their home island. That's meant some Cuban Americans have only stories, or maybe a few photos or keepsakes, from their families' native land. But now, four children of exiles are trying to help young Cuban Americans form their own memories of Cuba.
The CubaOne Foundation is setting up four free trips of 10 people each for Cuban Americans between 22 and 35 years old. It's the brainchild of Daniel Jimenez, Giancarlo Sopo, Cherie Cancio and Andrew Jimenez. The Miami-area young professionals modeled their program after Birthright Israel, which offers free trips for young Jews to learn about Israeli culture and make connections with other Jews.
"It was incredibly inspiring to see how my friends who have been on the Birthright Israel trips, how that helped them form emotional connections to Israel and to Israelis and how that helped foster ties in both countries on a people-to-people level," says Sopo.
So far, CubaOne has a budget of about $100,000 — out of the founders' own pockets — enough to take 40 people to Cuba this summer, covering the cost of flights from Miami, visas, most meals, transportation through the island and lodging.
"We feel incredibly passionate about this project; we call it a passion project for all of us," says Sopo. "We see this as a proof of concept, if you will, and we want to take this idea to donors and to funders, foundations here in the United States, who can help us jumpstart this initiative and grow it. Our belief is that we'd like to take our entire generation to Cuba to meet its peers."
The founders have been going to Cuba regularly to establish connections with private citizens who can offer tours, accommodations, food and transportation. Daniel Jimenez says it's important to them to have tour operators who align with the mission.
The first trip is set for next month. Eventually, they'd like to sponsor themed trips: US art students connecting with Cuban art students, US tech professionals with Cuban tech professionals, etc.
CubaOne specifically aims to connect its travelers with regular people in Cuba, rather than give them state-run experiences.
"So much of Cuba discussion is focused around politics," says Sopo. "And this gives me the opportunity to take politics out of the equation and just talk to people on a human level. ... I think it's important for people on both sides of the Florida Straits to talk to one another and have this healthy dialogue."
Jimenez first went to Cuba last November. He says he was speechless for the first three days. Being Cuban American in Miami and being Cuban in Cuba are different experiences, he says, despite the cultural commonalities.
"I was just very shellshocked seeng what my family went through," he says. "You can't go [to Cuba] and not want to help and not want to see where Cuba's going to go in the future."
Sopo says part of CubaOne's mission is to help improve life on the island, enabled by these new connections with Cuban Americans.
As for what he's gained personally: "Staying in the house where my grandparents lived, where my mom grew up — it made things make sense. It allowed me to understand my family better."