By Kathryn Schmidt/American Red Cross Volunteer
Few Americans can say that they’ve traveled to Cuba. I am one of them. One of our closest neighbors geographically, but a nation without diplomatic relations with the United States, travel to Cuba is limited for U.S. citizens. There are select organizations and professions that can obtain special permits for travel to Cuba. One such organization is where I work: Global Volunteers, which allowed me to take part in its Cuba People-to-People program in April. I was eager to meet the Cuban people, and learn something about their history, culture and lifestyle.
In the weeks before our departure, I learned that there was an opening in our schedule. I suggested to our group that we might visit the Cuban Red Cross (or Cruz Roja Cubana). After searching for a Cuban Red Cross contact via the American Red Cross national headquarters in D.C., my travel group wrote and received an email reply that our Global Volunteers group of sixteen Americans and one Cuban tour guide were welcome to visit the Cuban Red Cross headquarters in Havana at the designated date and time.
Our visit came on the third full day in Cuba. So, already we had seen how few goods were available to most people, how many lived in shabby housing, how they lacked resources to repair beautiful, but crumbling buildings since 1959, and how most people had warm smiles and expressed themselves through art and music. We hoped our presence would contribute to better relations between our countries in the future, and we knew our new Cuban friends hoped the same thing – they said so with words and hugs.
En route to our meet-up, I gave an introductory presentation about the Red Cross to our group comprised of people from Washington, Massachusetts, Florida, Arizona, and states in-between. My crash course included the story of Henry Dunant and how he founded the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the Geneva Conventions, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Federation (IFRC) and its 189 national societies around the world, and what our local chapters do to support the American Red Cross mission to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies.
Upon our arrival, Dr. Luis Foyo Ceballos, Director of the Cuban Red Cross, welcomed us. He gave a great presentation in Spanish, which our tour guide interpreted into English. At times, I was able to connect some of his presentation to mine for the group, especially regarding the 7 Red Cross Fundamental Principles and our work responding to natural disasters. I shared brochures and pins with our local Red Cross hosts. Then, we took a couple pictures together and parted with hearty handshakes.
To me, our visit was Red Cross neutrality and independence in action. Our two countries are about as far apart politically as two countries can be, and yet we talked in this place about our common pursuit of serving humanity with volunteers when disasters strike. Even though commerce is not possible, the American Red Cross was able to support the Red Cross disaster response to Hurricane Sandy in Cuba.
Before our visit, my group had seen stark differences between our countries. Now, we had experienced one humanitarian movement in two nations transcending political boundaries.