photo: Maite Blanco

Giancarlo Sopo’s grandfather died while being held in Havana’s La Cabaña prison after the triumph of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution in 1959. There is a chance that Sopo’s grandfather was executed by revolutionary forces. Two years after Cuba began its path to Soviet-allied communism, Sopo’s father fought the Castro regime as part of the failed CIA-backed attack on Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Sopo, a communications specialist who was born and raised in Cuban exile Miami, has made peace with the island, with the support of his family. On an awakening trip to Cuba last year, he visited La Cabaña with a Cuban relative. 

“As I toured it with my cousin who lives there, I thought, ‘How can I possibly hold my cousin accountable for the actions of people he had nothing to do with?” the 33-year-old recounts. “That’s all I kept thinking.”

free-trips-to-cuba-cubans

Giancarlo Sopo horseback riding in Pinar del Rio.

photo: Giancarlo Sopo

In 2009, President Barack Obama changed U.S.-Cuba policy to allow Cuban-Americans without direct relatives to legally visit Cuba. In doing so, he undid his predecessor George W. Bush’s travel restrictions and began to chart his course for a normalization of relations between Cold War enemies. The president opened the doors to the soul searching that the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Cuban exiles are now experiencing as they contemplate a visit to the island that made their elders feel unwelcome and turned them into exiles. 

Giancarlo Sopo is taking advantage of the political opening and inviting those like him to reconcile with the past, experience Cuba, and establish what he hopes will be long-lasting — and once unthinkable — ties between millennial Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits.

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This year, Sopo, with three of his millennial Cuban-American peers, founded CubaOne, a groundbreaking organization that will take young Cuban-Americans to see the real Cuba for free. The four friends and colleagues are putting forth the time and money to make the four inaugural trips happen. They are approaching individuals, foundations, and corporations to help fund CubaOne’s expansion. 

Although inspired by Birthright Israel, the trips aren’t about promoting love for a state but about promoting love among a decades-long divided people. And Cuban-Americans are excited about the idea. CubaOne has already received over 900 applications for the four 2016 inaugural trips, each one with a different geographical focus so Cuban-Americans can experience the cities and towns their families once called home.

photo: Maite Blanco

Maite Blanco, 26, is a mental health counselor and marriage and family therapist from Hialeah Gardens, in Miami-Dade, Florida. Blanco only knows the Cuba of family pictures and stories — mostly negative tales of heartbreak and exile. Her grandfather was arrested by revolutionary forces and only released because a friend of his who had joined the revolution saw him and said, “Get that kid out of here,” says her great-grandmother from Miami. 

Blanco’s parents were the gusanos Fidel Castro ridiculed. 

“My parents always told me, ‘We left nothing behind,’” she says. “I grew up with the mentality that if my parents have nothing there, then I have nothing there.” Although both parents have family in Cuba, neither has gone back.

Florida International University’s (FIU) Cuba Research Institute (CRI) has polled Miami’s Cuban-American sentiment regarding Cuba and U.S.-Cuba policy for more than two decades. With older exiles from the first waves of migration dying — and sometimes softening their hard line positions late in life — and younger generations of Cuban-Americans demographically dominating the community and opposing their elders’ views, travel to Cuba is increasingly on the horizon. 

89 percent of younger Cuban-Americans favor lifting travel restrictions to Cuba compared to 69 percent of the community as a whole, according to CRI’s latest 2014 poll. While newer arrivals from Cuba also greatly favor unrestricted travel to Cuba (80 percent), it is the descendants of exiles who are more likely to face opposition at home. 

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“In general, those younger Cubans who did not personally experience the revolution and only had second-hand memories if at all — its basically what their abuelas told them about Cuba — don't necessarily have the personal trauma that their parents and grandparents did,” explains Dr. Jorge Duany, CRI’s Cuban-born director. 

“What I hear is that people won’t travel to Cuba out of respect for their elders. Once their parents or grandparents die, they feel almost authorized to go to Cuba.” The professor of anthropology at FIU concludes, “These are the kinds of issues that I think are very typical in Cuban-American families.”    

While CubaOne’s founders want to help their fellow Cuban-Americans connect with their roots in Cuba, the trips have an even more ambitious underlying goal: professional relationships that will last a lifetime. 

“Only good things will come out of Cuban-American doctors working with Cuban doctors, and Cuban architects on the island working with their colleagues in South Florida,” Sopo says. “That currently isn’t happening, not on the scale that it should be.”

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Cuban-Americans interested in the trip should not expect a week on the beach in Varadero, but conversations with Cubans from all walks of life, including those who, at least in the exile community, have been in the background of the white Cuban male-dominated scene. 

CubaOne founder Cherie Cancio, whose mother is Puerto Rican and father is
Afro-Cuban, says that bringing Cuban-American women to the forefront of conversations on Cuba is of utmost importance to her. 

“The majority of the time in conversations about Cuba,” explains the 28-year-old who works at her father’s online magazine, On Cuba, “you hear male talking heads.” 

Another priority for Cancio is connecting Cuban-Americans with Afro-Cuban culture, something her father, an activist, has been doing for decades. 

“We are going to place special emphasis on exploring the Afro-Cuban aspects of Cuba,” she says. “We want to give a genuine, authentic view of what Cuban culture is, and you cannot do that if you do not focus on the effects that Afro-Cubans have had on our culture.”

photo: Erick Nuñez

Erick Nuñez, 33, is a Cuban-American college counselor based in Shenzhen, China. Mostly through work, he has traveled to 37 countries. The Washington Heights native has been to Cuba three times to visit his family in Las Tunas, and will return again this summer. He says the trips and conversations were as eye-opening for him as they were for his Cuban family members, many of whom are pro-regime. 

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His succession of trips allowed him to evaluate the moderation of opinions held by his family separated by sometimes very divisive politics. Nuñez was taken aback to learn that while his parents were on a slew of medication for numerous health issues, their peers in Cuba were as healthy as could be. “Who ended up winning? Who is better off?” he recalls having said to himself. 

Nuñez’s family lost land to the revolution, but he finds value in his trips to the island and is excited about CubaOne. 

“I would love to be in a casa particular and experience those conversations, and meet other Cuban-Americans, which would be amazing,” he says. “I grew up with mostly Dominicans, who were able to travel back and forth to their island like nothing. I never had that opportunity as a kid. The closest I had was Miami.”

Back in Miami, Maite Blanco, upon learning about CubaOne, says she is open to visiting the island.

"Psychologically, that’s a justification for me — not going to go to Varadero to hang out while everyone else is in poverty,” she says.

Blanco is interested in women with addictions, specifically their absence in hospitals and AA and NA meetings she attends. She wonders what Cuban mental health counselors have observed. But she also wants to see the place her parents fled, “to fulfill that need, that curiosity.” 

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She imagines speaking with her parents if given the chance to travel to Cuba. “I’m here in the country you guys fled and want nothing to do with. I’m here to do something good.”

Giancarlo Sopo has no doubt that the alcoholism and depression his father suffered before his death was related to the tumultuous events of 1959. Estimates of the political executions that perhaps befell Sopo’s grandfather range from the hundreds to the thousands. 

“I could have spent the rest of my life with a great deal of anger and resentment towards Cuba, and not want to go there or engage the Cuban people in any meaningful way,” he says. “I made a different decision because you can only heal the wounds of the past if you reconcile with what happened before and start charting a new course towards the future.”

Sopo expects CubaOne to, with time, expand greatly beyond the 40-50 participants expected to see Cuba this year. 

“We don’t want Cuba to any longer be black-and-white photos for people of our generation. We want it to be names and faces of friends and family,” he says. 

Upon return from Cuba, Sopo wants CubaOne participants to remain connected to the island. 

“Throughout their lives, when they make decisions or as they pursue their passions in their careers, [the trip] will help keep Cuba — hopefully — in their hearts and minds.”