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In January of 2015, then President Barack Obama improved diplomatic relations with Cuba and expanded the categories of visas for Americans to visit the island. While tourism for the sake of tourism is still against the law for Americans heading to Cuba, many Americans have taken advantage of the warming relations to visit and start to lift the veil of secrecy that has always surrounded the long misunderstood island.

As founder of an educational institute involved in developing programs for drowning prevention, swim instruction, and lifeguard training, I have always looked for situations where we could help – whether as a sponsor, collaborator, or on our own. Our growing international presence has brought so many impactful experiences, so when U.S. relations with Cuba began to change it was easy to be intrigued and curious.

I suspected that we were uninformed and had more misconceptions than we realized about Cuba, its culture, and its needs. So first and foremost, the purpose of our trip was to learn.

Before we went, we learned that there is a critical need for lifeguard training supplies and equipment. Brining this equipment became the “humanitarian” part of the trip – meeting one of the approved categories U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba. Through donations by The Lifeguard Store and supplemented with equipment from Starfish Aquatics Institute, we were able to obtain rescue tubes, first aid supplies, manikins, BVM’s, Seal Rite CPR masks, hip packs, and rash guards to deliver.

Another approved travel category is “people-to-people” connections, which I knew we would have no problem meeting as well. One of our goals was to establish contacts to help aquatic facilities in Cuba participate for the first time ever in the 2017 World’s Largest Swimming Lesson. Delivered through the World Waterpark Association, this program offers a free-swimming lesson to build awareness of the vital importance of teaching people to swim to help prevent drowning. Last year a global team of 40,290 participants in 610 locations worldwide participated.

How Things Got Arranged and Our Trip Over

To get the ball rolling, Lifeguards Without Borders cofounder Dr. Justin Sempsrott put us in touch with a U.S. citizen living in Cuba, Tony Whitmore, who had an established relationship with the Crus Roja (Red Cross) in Havana. Tony arranged for us to meet with representative of Cruz Roja at their office and secured a driver and interpreter for the duration of our stay. Beyond that, we were prepared to be flexible and see what evolved with an open mind and willing hearts.

We booked flights the first week that U.S. commercial airlines were able to land in Cuba. The entire travel process was much easier than expected, other than being told by an agent at my local airport check in-desk, “I’m sorry, I don’t think I can check you in because you’re not allowed to go there,” which was quickly retracted by her supervisor. We were unnecessarily nervous about getting a visa, which involved nothing more than providing our passport information and paying a fee at our departure gate.

We’ve flown marathon journeys of almost 40 hours to land in places less intriguing, impactful, and confusing than what was coming our way after a mere two-hour flight to Havana. When we touched down, the plane erupted in cheers and tears. I would have loved to know the personal life stories of people on that flight and why it was such an emotional destination for them.

Drowning Prevention Efforts and Lifeguarding in Cuba

Our driver, William.

The morning after we arrived, our driver, William, showed up to take us to our meeting in a beautifully refurbished classic American car outfitted with a diesel engine. Parts aren’t available for the original V8 engines, so he and his father worked on the car for years and he was very happy to hear our praise for their efforts. These cars from the 1950’s and 60’s make up the majority of automobiles in Cuba. Even after several days, seeing the streets filled with them was almost surreal. William has a university degree in Engineering, yet he can now make more money in one day as a driver than he would earn in four months of government salary in his professional field.

The two-person staff that run the Cruz Roja Cubana office located on a main boulevard in Havana greeted us enthusiastically. The spartan office consisted of two small rooms outfitted with a steel desk, six plastic chairs, a small couch, table, rotary phone, Cuban flag, and wall plaque. We asked questions about the history of the organization, how their system of training works, and discussed our mutual interest in reducing the global burden of drowning. The gentlemen had statistics that indicate a low drowning rate in Cuba, but admitted that the numbers – like everywhere – are underreported.

When we got into details of sharing our respective drowning resuscitation protocols (with efforts of our interpreter supplemented with gestures, demonstrations, pointing at photos in textbooks) we were pleasantly surprised. They train to provide immediate rescue breathing in the water, with five initial breaths. This approach is more current and evidence-based than many lifeguard training agencies in the U.S. They wanted to show us the drowning prevention PSA’s recently produced that run on the government-run TV stations, but there was no Internet or computer.

The equipment was much appreciated. Our visit must have gone well, as we were invited to visit the provincial lifeguard training academy in Guanabo the following day, located about an hour down the coast. 

 

Our trip to Universidad de Ciencias Medicas de Habana, Escuela de Salvavidas “Henry Dunant” was one of the more interesting of our visit, but for unexpected reasons. Like most things we experienced in Cuba, it was hard to be sure our facts were straight and we were left with questions, wonderment, and a bit of confusion. We pulled up in front of what appeared to be a large home a few blocks from the beach. After introductions we started the tour, where the first stop was a large mosaic art mural of caricatures representing 165 personalities of Cuban musicians, entertainers, and celebrities of the 1950’s. It turns out that the building and grounds were once the home of the famous Soprano, Maruja Gonzalez. After the Revolution the state took over the property and decided it would be more useful as a lifeguard academy. The location is now sought out by historians looking to study the mural, which is considered a sociocultural patchwork of that era. Lifeguard training takes place in the tiny pool and formerly elegant bathhouses are now bunkrooms, kitchen, and mess hall. Additional classrooms have been built.

In keeping with the high emphasis placed on education in the Cuban culture, lifeguard training in Cuba takes a distinctly academic approach. Each of the provinces in Cuba has an academy that is part of the college/university system as well as the medical system. As a result, professors teach the months-long curriculum from a variety of pedagogy, including Physical Culture for the water skills. Physicians and medical professionals teach anatomy and first aid, and professors in history and social sciences teach Political Culture courses. After graduation, lifeguards are placed in various state-owned hotels, resorts, municipal pools, beaches, and possibly the few schools that have pools. Their efforts are supplemented with volunteers through Cruz Roja Cubana.

Again we encountered well-intended, educated professionals making do with limited supplies and infrastructure, forcing them to stay stagnant and stuck in the past in many respects. On the other hand, they find ways to stay relevant.

Where We Stayed

Our experience was made far more meaningful by choosing to stay in an Airbnb rather than a hotel. For years, Cuba has had a private home rental network known as “casa particulares,” created by the government in 1997 to meet the demand for lodging not met by the limited number of hotel rooms on the island. As U.S./Cuba restrictions eased, Airbnb was able to piggyback on this network.

The host pays a percentage of the fees to the government, and must collect and turn in passport information for each guest, but the arrangement is turning folks into mini-entrepreneurs and allows both the host and guests to form real connections.

We stayed in two homes in Havana – an apartment on a side street, and another overlooking the famous Malecon. The third was in the beach town of Trinidad on the opposite coast. It was so fun to experience the local streetscape where what appears to be a deserted, crumbling, and almost slum-like area at first glance is really a vibrant community. The street-level shutters open to reveal multi-generational family homes. Mornings were filled with the street vendor calls up to women on balconies who lowered a basket with money then pulled it up filled with eggs, produce, or other items distributed this way because there are no supermarkets.

Observations/Conclusions

  • The strength and vibrancy of the Cuban culture makes it difficult to sort out after only one short trip. Everywhere we went we were made to feel at home and we hope to go back soon.

  • Although poor, Cuba is not impoverished. It is not a third-world country in need of volunteers or people to come in and “fix” the way things are done. Cuba is filled with healthy, educated professionals with a high literacy rate (same as U.S. and Canada). Although Cubans not working in the tourist industry speak very little English, many speak at least one other language besides Spanish. We saw no homeless, and crime was not an issue.

  • Cuba does need supplies and infrastructure, but even helping with that isn’t as straightforward as it seems. They make it work themselves and are proud and happy to do so.

  • We were able to come to appreciate, but will likely never fully understand the complexities of this unique place and culture.

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