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RWF seeks people to join on Cuba trip

by Alex Madison

Participants enjoyed a previous Rainbow World Fund trip to Cuba. Photo: Courtesy Rainbow World Fund
Participants enjoyed a previous Rainbow World Fund trip to Cuba. Photo: Courtesy Rainbow World Fund  

Rainbow World Fund, an LGBTQ-based humanitarian aid organization, is once again traveling to Cuba and looking for people to join the trip, where they can help support the local LGBTQ community and take in the sights.

"We are working to change peoples' hearts and minds about who the LGBTQ people are by expressing the passion and caring we have for the world," said Jeff Cotter, a gay man who's executive director of RWF.

Cotter is still accepting volunteers for the trip from May 9-19, which coincides with Conga, Havana's LGBTQ Pride celebration honoring the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia on May 17. RWF volunteers will walk alongside locals at the Pride parade in Havana on May 11, along with an LGBTQ march, which last year massed more than 2,000 people. Attendance for the parade has grown every year.

This is the eighth trip RWF will take to Cuba and, although each trip is unique, its purpose remains the same: to educate volunteers on the lives, culture, spirituality and challenges of the Cuban people and to bring awareness to the positive engagement of the LGBTQ community around the world, Cotter said.

"It's a great opportunity to learn about Cuba not as a tourist and to learn about the lives and struggles of the Cuban people," he added.

During the trip, the group of RWF volunteers, usually around 10 or 15, will deliver medical supplies to hospitals and clinics that support children affected by AIDS and other HIV-related illnesses in hard-hit Matanzas province and elsewhere. For many years, RWF has fully funded a summer camp program for HIV-positive children and their families in Cuba. The group will also make trips to local schools and art centers to donate art and school supplies.

Additionally, the trip is designed to connect volunteers with local human rights and LGBTQ leaders, members of Parliament, other government officials, political dissidents, and figures in the art and cultural scene, Cotter explained.

As Cotter said, although there has been a lot of progress in the past few decades in terms of acceptance of LGBTQ people in Cuba, "there is still a lot of work to be done." He said homophobic ideologies were spread after the Cuban Revolution of the early 1950s, which led many LGBTQ Cubans to migrate to Miami.

The late former Cuban president Fidel Castro was known to send gay men and others to labor camps that were known by the Spanish acronym UMAPs. But today, more widespread acceptance has led to activists' publicly calling for the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Mariela Castro, a straight ally who's the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, is the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education and an outspoken LGBTQ supporter. The RWF group will meet Mariela Castro and learn about her and others' long fight for equal rights for LGBTQ Cubans.

And a trip to Cuba would not be complete without a little beach time, a cruise in a midcentury American car around Havana, a trip to the National Museum of Fine Art and the Bay of Pigs, and snorkeling in the reefs of Varadero.

For many RWF volunteers, traveling to Cuba was life changing. Cotter talked about the important connections the volunteers make to the culture and people of Cuba and one another.

"Part of what we are doing is helping the people we bring form connections and friendships with folks in Cuba," he said. "We connect and support LGBTQ individuals and the community at large."

For 17 years, RWF has traveled all over the world, including to Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Uganda, Iraq, Syria, and, recently, Puerto Rico to aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

The RWF trip to Cuba costs $2,600 per person and includes meals, hotel, ground transportation by private van, and translation and guide services. It does not include airfare, which Cotter said is about $500-$550 from San Francisco. The first five nights are spent in Old Havana at Plaza Veija. The group then travels to Varadero to stay the remaining five nights at the Centre for Children and the Aged.

Rolling back Obama-era policies that loosened American travel restrictions to Cuba, President Donald Trump has restricted people-to-people visas for tourists going to Cuba. However, RWF volunteers are exempt due to their status as a humanitarian group.

The trip is planned so that volunteers arrive in Miami, usually taking a red-eye flight, at the same time then fly to Havana. People traveling from the East Coast have more travel options to get to Miami, Cotter noted.

For more information on how to visit Cuba with RWF or to donate to its relief fund, visit http://rainbowfund.org or at https://www.facebook.com/events/223329661575899/.

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