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In Cuba, yes, but only with a purpose
Victoria Burnett, The New York Times
LINDA SLEZAK stood over a bed of delicate bean plants, tearing out tiny weeds and mounding loose, rust-colored earth around the stems.
A hot June sun glared over the Arroyo Arenas organic vegetable garden at the edge of Havana where Ms. Slezak, a 68-year-old retired social worker from Long Island, and 16 other Americans were visiting as part of a “food sovereignty” program organized by Global Exchange, a human rights organization, and Food First, a policy institute.
She and the beans were partly shaded by netting slung over the long trough-shaped beds, but it was hot, damp and sticky. She paused now and then to wipe her forehead.
Sweating in a Cuban field is not everyone’s idea of relaxation, and it is a far cry from the decadent gaiety that drew Americans to Havana before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. But trips like this are one way of getting to see Cuba, and have just become accessible to most Americans.
After President George W. Bush clamped down on travel to Cuba in 2003, groups of American professionals continued to visit to research topics like agriculture, art, music, literature or health care. Under President Obama, the United States Treasury Department is again issuing licenses for “people-to-people” trips, intended to encourage contact between Americans and Cubans.
Tour sponsors said that with the new licenses, many of the trips being offered as research programs would be available to everybody, not just professionals. (Many already include a lot of interaction with Cubans.) Two recent research programs — one involving green farming, the other art — give a taste of what visitors can expect.
Certainly they can expect to be busy. Tourism is still prohibited by the embargo, and American travel to Cuba must be “purposeful” to be legal. Those applying to join research tours must attest to having a professional link to the subject matter. (For people-to-people travel, this requirement doesn’t apply.)
These strictures translate into packed itineraries that leave little time for sunbathing. Depending on the trip’s focus, visitors attend lectures on topics ranging from seeds to santería. They might take cooking classes, visit clinics, go to art studios or meet marine biologists. Some groups stay at Havana’s grand old hotels; others stay at guesthouses and even rural campgrounds.
“It’s always frustrated me that Cuba is such an incredibly beautiful place, and we can’t go,” said Ms. Slezak, who heard about the food sovereignty trip through her work as a leader of the slow-food movement. “This was a way to go.” (Food sovereignty is a development term for people’s right to define their own sustainable food systems.)
Erna Brout, a 73-year-old painter from Hartsdale, N.Y., was in Cuba on an art tour organized by the New York-based Center for Cuban Studies. She said she found her trip exhilarating, if exhausting.
“It’s like boot camp,” she said, resting on a bench at the loft-style studio of the sculptor William Pérez and the mixed-media artist Marlys Fuego in central Havana. “We don’t get lunch. We put hard-boiled eggs and cheese in our bags from breakfast and bring it along.”
The six members of her group visited three dozen artists during a weeklong program that took them from Havana to Cienfuegos, on a sparkling bay on the south coast, and to Trinidad, the colonial gem that is the birthplace of Benito Ortiz, one of Cuba’s foremost primitivist artists.
The group drank mango juice as Mabel Poblet, an artist, explained how she composes images from tiny acetate tiles at her Havana home, and talked to students and professors at the Instituto Superior de Arte, with its complex of voluptuous Catalan-vaulted terra-cotta domes.
“Hearing the younger artists speaking about their art with such passion and such brilliance — to me, it was just wonderful,” Ms. Brout said by phone after returning home. “I felt very privileged.”
Despite the intense schedule, Ms. Brout and the group found time in Varadero, in the northwestern province of Matanzas, to wade in the sea and sip mojitos at Xanadu, the grand former mansion of Irénée du Pont, now part of a golf course. At the house of an artist in Cienfuegos, they listened to an impromptu recital of traditional trova music.
Ms. Slezak and her group were just as busy. They visited urban vegetable gardens in and around Havana (part of Cuba’s effort to grow food efficiently near cities), a center for herbal medicine and a food conservation project.
From Havana, they headed to Las Terrazas, an ecotourism complex nestled in a biosphere reserve, and then to Pinar del Río and the Viñales Valley, where limestone hills, or mogotes, rise from the farmland like great green molars.
This group squeezed in some leisure time, too, touring Havana’s carefully restored old city, catching some jazz at La Zorra y el Cuervo and dining at La Guarida, a bohemian restaurant tucked at the top of a crumbling central Havana mansion.
Delegations of Americans are good public relations and a promising source of income for Cuba. (That makes trips like these a point of fierce contention for those in the United States who oppose greater contact between the two countries.)
While visitors are shuttled around on a tight schedule, their evenings are often free, and several said they felt they had time to draw their own conclusions, both positive and negative.
“I’m satisfied that I can go home and be clear on certain things,” said Nesbitt Blaisdell, an 82-year-old actor who used to run the compost heap at the community garden at Sixth Street and Avenue B in New York. “There are good things and things that are unresolved.” He was blown away by the organic farms, he said, but troubled by the lack of freedom of expression.
Sandra Levinson, executive director of the Center for Cuban Studies who was in Havana with Ms. Brout’s group, said the center would add variety to existing programs to appeal to people-to-people travelers. The new rules, she said, opened the way for other trips focusing on things like gender politics, film or Cuba in transition.
“You spend a day in a dance class, and then in the evening, you can go to a club and dance with Cubans. And you’re not breaking any rules,” she said. “That’s great.”
Several visitors said they would like to come back on people-to-people trips exploring different aspects of Cuban life.
Al Chiodi, 50, from Eustis, Fla., who came for the food sovereignty program, said he would like to return to look at art and architecture. “Would I want to explore more?” asked Mr. Chiodi, who runs a business center that includes several green business initiatives. “Yes, I certainly would. There are so many aspects I would like to see.”
These trips vary in cost, but Global Exchange offers 10- to 12-day visits to Cuba for $2,400 to $2,875, including a round-trip flight from Cancún, Mexico, to Havana, visa costs and three-star accommodations.
The Center For Cuban Studies does not publish prices for trips, but Ms. Levinson said a one-week trip, including accommodations, a round-trip flight from Miami, visa costs and a donation to the center, runs $2,200 to $2,800.
For the travelers, Cuba, like most destinations, surpassed expectations on some fronts and disappointed on others. Ms. Slezak was baffled by meals of soggy vegetables, processed meat and powdered egg, especially after all the organic farms she saw, while Ms. Brout, who had been warned there might be no soap, was surprised to find shampoo and a hair dryer in her bathroom at the Hotel Nacional in Havana.
By the last day, Ms. Brout was dying to relax by the pool, she said. But she did not regret seeing so much art.
“I don’t think I would have traded it for the world,” she said. “I don’t think I know Havana very well for the squares and things tourists get to see, but I think I am much richer for what I saw.”