How Road Scholars Are Impacting the People of Cuba — One Person at a Time

BY ELAINE CHU
Director of International Program Planning

“I want to thank all of you for the opportunity you have given me. To work with you has been life-changing. I have met many wonderful people, and I have learned a lot. Daily, I study the history and the current state of U.S. and Cuba relations … just to do the best job and to better understand and develop mutual friendships between our two nations and peoples.” – Javier, Road Scholar Instructor in Cuba

I read a lot of comments in the media about Cuba, and whether or not Americans should travel there while the Castro regime is still in power. Please understand that I am not voicing an opinion for or against the Cuban government. What I want to talk about is the impact that Road Scholar has on the people of Cuba.

I am the developer and planner for our Road Scholar programs in Cuba, and I have a very intimate connection with just how much Road Scholar programs directly benefit Cuban people. The quote above, from one of our lecturers, is just one example.

I get a little teary-eyed and emotional when I talk about Road Scholar and Cuba, because I have seen the changes and improvements in individual lives, who — for us here at Road Scholar and for the thousands of Road Scholar participants who have traveled to Cuba — have faces and names and their own stories to tell.

But before I talk about how Road Scholar is impacting individual lives, let’s look at one important number. Due to the increase of Americans traveling to Cuba in the last few years, the percentage of the population that works in private enterprise (as opposed to working for the government) has increased from 1% to 25%. That’s a testament to the overall impact that Road Scholar participants and other visitors have made on the people of Cuba.

Of course, part of our participants’ tuition does go to a Cuban Ministry of Tourism government entity. What does the government agency do with those funds? About 25-35% of that cost stays with the government tourism agency, which in turn employs thousands of Cubans in jobs that give them direct contact with the rest of the world and are some of the most sought-after jobs in Cuba. It covers the costs of their offices, their internet connections, their salaries, their uniforms and more.

The balance of our participants’ tuition is paid out for the services that you use when on a program: the cost of the hotels, the transportation, the Cuban instructors and the driver’s service, their meals and accommodations, the official cost of all of the activities, and the restaurant meals that are included in your program. Almost all of the restaurants that Road Scholar uses are privately owned enterprises, except where none exist that can accommodate a group.

“I get a little teary-eyed and emotional when I talk about Road Scholar and Cuba, because I have seen the changes and improvements in individual lives.”

The funds that get paid to government-owned companies provide for Cubans, who receive a full education, all healthcare, a basic monthly ration of necessities and housing. Those who work for the government receive a salary of about $25 per month. Funds paid to the government also go toward infrastructure improvements, such as renovations in Havana, telecommunications and road improvements and more. While lots of Cubans don’t like a lot of things about the way the Cuban government works, I have yet to meet one who would give up comprehensive healthcare, education, housing and jobs that include being paid to be an artist or a musician.

Much of our participants’ tuition is paid into the hands of individual Cuban people, such as hotel maids, porters, waiters, musicians and museum docents, lecturers, instructors, drivers and many others. It supports the community service projects that you encounter as part of the people-to-people activities that are at the center of our programs.

Just one example worth mentioning is the Havana Queens dance company. Watching them perform is an activity on some of our programs in Cuba. Road Scholar's support is an essential part of providing a living wage for the dancers. Thousands of Road Scholar participants have seen them perform and met the dancers individually.

Lastly, a small portion of the tuition remains with Road Scholar, which as a not-for-profit organization, we use to fulfill our mission and develop more educational learning experiences around the world.

In addition to the funds Road Scholar brings to Cuba, our participants bring gifts to Cuba, of their own volition. Because of the U.S. embargo, having cash in Cuba doesn’t necessarily mean being able to buy diapers, if they aren’t available. Or computers, printers, yarn, needles and thread, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, AA batteries and much more. But because of the generosity of Road Scholar participants, Cuban people, community projects, educational programs and private enterprises have directly benefited from each and every Road Scholar participant who has set foot in Cuba.

But of all the things we exchange in Cuba, the most important is the interpersonal exchange of ideas, the broadened understanding, knowledge and friendships. Those details would best come from one of our participants, so if you’ve been on a Road Scholar program to Cuba, I invite you to tell us about that experience from an interpersonal perspective, and how, as Javier says, you developed a mutual understanding and friendship between the people of our two countries. 


Elaine ChuElaine Chu is the Director of International Program Planning. She has been with Road Scholar since 2004 and has created learning adventures in more than 33 countries.

Have questions about traveling to Cuba with Road Scholar? Find the answers here, or see all of our trips to Cuba.

  • Elaine, thanks for this blog post.  I am going to Cuba with Road Scholar later this year, and have read some of the same commentary.  I have also read that gifts (the supplies that you referenced) are not respectful of the Cuban people, implying that they are beggars.  Your comment put it well - even with money, you can't buy supplies that just aren't available.  Thanks again for your insight on a couple of things that had been bothering me.

  • I was there on a Road Scholar trip in February, 2017. The Cuban people were so very, very kind to us. The food and programs were excellent.

  • The Cuba trip was the highlight of my travel history.  I read every book on Cuba I could get my hands on before going. I hung on every word our guide Guillermo and our tour hostess Cukie said.  I am desperate to get back there someday.  But I would like to stay longer.  I once found an organization that brought English Language tutors to work with college students but the program ended quickly due to the Cuban government reluctance.

    Go to Cuba and you will fall in love. Go with Road Scholar and they will make that possible by bringing you deeply into the society and culture and history.  And I agree with a previous comment.  They don't want to trade in their country for another but make Cuba a better country.  Guillermo told us, "I am Cuban.  If I were to be born again I would be born Cuban. This is my country and I'm not leaving it."  

  • my experience last yr in Cuba was that people loved gifts. there are so many things they cannot get. we brought some to the owner of the house we stayed in and i also gave candy to kids who thanked me and gum to a woman who asked me for some. she was so excited she was showing her friends.