International News

New Group Offers Young Cuban-Americans Free Trips to Cuba

For many daughters and sons of Cuban exiles in Miami, Cuba has long been an untouchable place. In many exilio families, mere mention of the island conjured bitter memories of shattered dreams and heartbreak. Travel to Cuba was taboo.

But that’s beginning to change. Fueled by the possibilities of rapprochement with the United States and the emotional distance wrought by time, more Cuban-Americans are traveling across the Florida Straits. And now some young Cuban-Americans think it’s high time their generation get to know the island of their ancestors.

To that end, four second-generation Cuban-Americans have just launched the CubaOne Foundation, a nonprofit seeking to bridge their community and the Cuban people. Beginning this summer, the group will offer young Cuban-Americans free trips to Cuba to explore issues of identity and personal heritage, and to build connections with the Cuban people. The program is modeled on Birthright Israel, the organization that has sent hundreds of thousands of young Jews to visit Israel since 1999.  

“Being Cuban was always part of my life, but it was always about this dream our parents had about the way things used to be,” says 34-year-old Daniel Jimenez, a former consultant and editor-in-chief at McKinsey & Company. “But when I went I saw a place I wanted to know and to help. I saw people starting businesses and tech companies. I want to take part.“

The idea for CubaOne was born late last year. In July, 33-year-old Giancarlo Sopo, a Miami­-based publicist, made his first trip to Cuba to visit family. Like many Miami Cubans, Sopo grew up very aware of his family’s history on the island. His grandfather was a poet, psychiatrist and Cuban Navy officer who died in Havana in 1959, perhaps at the hands of Che Guevara. Sopo’s late father was thrown in jail and later traveled to Miami, where he became a member of the Bay of Pigs invasion brigade. He never traveled back to Cuba. His mom came to Miami in the 70s. Despite the family’s history, when Sopo heard Obama’s announcement on December 17, 2014, he immediately wanted to travel to Cuba.

From the moment his relatives picked him up from the airport in their '80s Lada, Sopo adored the island. For 10 days, he met as many people as he could. Surprised and inspired by what he experienced, he saw a need for other young Cuban-Americans to visit Cuba and do the same.

“I saw a place filled with opportunities,” Sopo says.

Back in Miami, he connected with Cherie Cancio, 28, who he knew from Miami political circles. Cancio, whose mother is Puerto Rican and whose father came to the U.S. from Cuba during the Mariel Boatlift, had traveled to Cuba six years earlier, which she says was a “profound experience.” They began to explore ideas for ways to engage Cuban-American youth.

At the same time, Daniel Jimenez was having similar thoughts. His father came to the United States through the Pedro Pan program in 1962. After traveling to Cuba last year, he felt he had to help others make the trip. So he began to talk to his cousin Andrew, a 29-year-old attorney who had also been to the island with his father years earlier.

Soon, the four connected. And over dinner at Versailles last September, CubaOne began to take shape.

They decided to model their program after Birthright Israel, the not-for-profit educational organization that sponsors free 10-day heritage trips to Israel for Jewish young adults. Using their own money, the four founders have committed to funding the first four trips, for 10-12 people each, between July and January. Beyond that, they’re looking to partner with other organizations, corporations, and donors who may be interested in sponsoring the initiative. They will not accept government money, they say.

The trips are open to Cuban Americans ages 22 to 35. They’ll be organized around a loose theme, allowing people with specific interests — like arts or technology — to explore those areas. The trips are designed to support the island’s emerging private sector; participants will stay at casas particulares and dine at family-owned paladares, and they’ll meet young Cubans from all walks of life, including artists, entrepreneurs, and students. 

"This is about meeting people," Andrew Jimenez says. "That has a mutual benefit for both sides." 
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Jessica Weiss