Reuters | By Esteban Israel
They do not come to Cuba for the beaches and tropical mystique that draw more than 2 million other visitors each year.
Instead they come to spend their vacations working in the countryside under a blazing sun, eating rice and beans and sharing a room without air-conditioning or toilet with seven others.
They are so-called revolutionary tourists who arrive each year from about 50 countries for a “total immersion” in one of the world’s few remaining socialist countries.
“I call it a revolutionary vacation. I dedicate my free time to doing something concrete for the Cuban revolution,” Carlo Sarpero, a 26-year-old shop keeper from Genova, Italy, explained, as he repaired a school.
Cuba will receive more than 1,200 foreign “brigadistas” this summer for its “social-political” tourism program.
The Caribbean island’s government does not measure the program’s impact in monetary value, like that of sun and beach tourism which brings in more than $2.5 billion a year, but in political terms.
“A big majority of those who participate become activists in Cuban solidarity groups in their countries,” said Gabriel Benitez of the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP), the program sponsor.
The 21-day trip package, which includes lodging in the modest Caimito camp just west of Havana, costs $350.
The mainly youthful participants awake at 5:45 a.m. to the ballad “Guantanamera.”
By 7 a.m. they are clambering into the back of 1970s trucks, headed to the countryside to pick oranges, remove rocks from cane fields or repair schools.
Charlotte Godber said she would rather do voluntary work than send a check from London.
“It is more important to offer our labor than donate money because it shows our solidarity, and you really get to know the Cubans,” the 26-year-old media officer said.
The image of Argentine guerrilla Ernesto “Che” Guevara is everywhere in Caimito; on T-shirts, caps and tattooed on people’s limbs.
In the afternoon the brigadistas flop on the camp’s red earth to hear about Cuba’s economy, politics and society.
Revolutionary tourism began in 1969 when 500 Americans came to cut sugar cane. Some 55,000 from every continent have passed through the country since.
Around 50 US citizens of the “Venceremos Brigade” arrived this week, challenging a U.S. travel ban imposed as a result of a decades-old U.S. economic embargo against Cuba.
Most brigadistas find out about the program through Cuban solidarity groups. Others learn about the offer on the Internet.
They all receive introductory seminars before arriving on guest, rather than tourist, visas.
Recently the government has been trying to attract young Europeans during their summer vacations in hopes of influencing a sector of the left not always sympathetic to President Fidel Castro.
“That way the revolutionary message reaches places it didn’t before,” ICAP’s Benitez said.
Federico Beccia, a political science student from Amsterdam, said he wanted to experience Cuba first hand.
“The European press says Fidel is a dictator and things here are awful. I wanted to see with my own eyes,” he said.
“Here you can see the truth. I am not going to believe anything the press says about Cuba,” he said, while hauling stones from a cane field.
Aside from organizing the visits, ICAP is focusing its efforts on an international campaign to free five Cuban agents arrested in the United States in 1998.
In the brigadistas’ camp there are copies of an ad that appeared in the New York Times calling for the release of the agents, who Cuba says were spying on violence-prone exiles in Florida.
The advertisement cost $55,000, paid for by donations from members of solidarity movements in countries such as Germany, Canada, Spain, Great Britain and even the United States.
Many of the donors picked oranges or worked Caimito’s cane fields at some point in their lives.