For years, Ben Squires dreamed about going to Cuba. His brother Mark had been stationed there in 1947 when he was in the Navy and "loved it," says Ben, 75, a retired health administrator in Chicago. "He raved about the music, the magnificent architecture, the people. It sounded terrific, and I always wanted to go. I figured I would, eventually."
It's taken a good 40 years, but last June, Ben and his wife Susan, 63, a nurse practitioner, spent eight days traveling around Havana and neighboring provinces, exploring the health-care and educational systems, visiting a pediatric hospital, a health-care clinic and a school for health professionals.
Like most Americans, the Squireses could not have made the trip much sooner, because a travel ban has been in effect since Castro took power in 1959. Technically, the ban is still in effect, but now there are legal ways around it, and Cuba has become the travel destination of choice for thousands of Americans--especially older Americans who have some memory of a pre-Castro Cuba. They are helped by a growing number of organizations that do all the legwork for them, procuring the proper visas and making flight and travel arrangements.
Some of these, like Vets2Cuba, have political agendas. Founded five years ago by Vietnam veteran Jim Long, 52, the group has taken nearly 30 vets of World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam on weeklong trips over Veterans Day. "We pay homage to a Cuban hero, like Antonio Masseo or Che Guevara, and we have a joint ceremony with Cuban veterans on Nov. 11," says Long, a telecommunications engineer in San Francisco who feels the U.S. should end its "economic blockade" against the country. Manhattan's 92nd Street Y takes largely Jewish-American travelers on excursions to Jewish Havana, and Global Exchange in San Francisco runs educational, language and volunteer programs. Trips include a look at the Cuban health-care system and a walk in Che Guevara's footsteps.
Elderhostel, based in Boston, which began its 11-day Cuba programs in April 2000, has since sent more than 120 people and has a waiting list. "Our program participants are over age 55, and many remember when you could go to Cuba easily," says Victoria McCormack, senior program manager at Elderhostel. "Now they want to see what the society is like, how the culture has matured since America closed its doors to Cuba." Participants study at the University of Havana and explore the city and surrounding areas.
The Squireses spent their eight days in Cuba with Cross-Cultural Solutions, an educational and experiential travel organization based in New Rochelle, N.Y. CCS's Insight Programs offer behind-the-scenes, personalized explorations and feature access to places tourists usually don't see--a tour of Old Havana with a member of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, say, or dinner in a Cuban home. Since May, founder Steve Rosenthal, who says his fully licensed company is apolitical, has sent about 200 people, 60% of whom are over 55. "We've had such a long and interesting history with Cuba over the past 40 years, the older adults are more aware of U.S.-Cuban relations and are very excited that there's finally a way to travel legally," says Rosenthal. "We don't take a stance on the embargo or U.S.-Cuba relations. We want people to come and make decisions for themselves."