Cultural Homestay International (CHI) has welcomed its first J-1 participant from Cuba. Luis Chavez is participating in CHI’s Camp Leaders programme. CHI’s administrator, Ivy Cohen, picked him up from New York’s JFK Airport on June 17. Luis will be sharing his baseball skills with young American campers at Camp Westmont in the Poconos Mountains of Pennsylvania. CHI is a non-profit educational organisation and WYSE Travel Confederation member. The organisation was founded in 1980 by Tom and Lilka Areton with the mission of promoting international understanding and goodwill through people-to-people exchanges.
“When my wife and I visited Cuba 3 years ago, we met with the officials of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana. The former U.S. Embassy building dominates the Malecón, that broad waterfront esplanade favoured by high school students, young couples and families. Speaking with the friendly crowd, we quietly wished we could welcome them all to CHI’s cultural programs. We wanted them to learn about our country, our people and our traditions of caring and friendship. Unfortunately, our meeting at ‘the Section’ left us disappointed. There was no desire to advance public diplomacy at that time,” Tom Areton explained.
However, Areton said the situation soon changed. “In the Summer of 2015, we reopened the U.S. Embassy in Havana and Cuba reopened theirs in Washington DC. Hope indeed springs eternal! It is now our top priority to grow a broad-based student exchange flow between our two countries. Developing friendship and mutual understanding between the U.S. and Cuba strengthens world peace, which is the ultimate goal of public diplomacy.”
More than 250,000 students and young adults from over 100 countries have participated in CHI’s educational and cultural programs, including Academic Year High School exchange, short-term Group Homestay, Au Pair childcare, Internship training, Work & Travel, and Camp Counselor experience. CHI was the first organisation to bring high school student groups to the US from Vietnam. It has also facilitated school groups from the Soviet Union and handicapped high school student groups from Japan. For American students seeking cultural experiences abroad, CHI organises high school study, language teaching adventures, and work programs in various countries around the globe.
President Donald Trump recently re-tightened travel restrictions for US citizens to Cuba. The rollback of Obama-era changes makes individual, people-to-people, travel to Cuba far more difficult for Americans. Some organisations which facilitate youth travel to the island have spoken out against the restrictions, saying the cultural exchange travel is especially beneficial to Cuban-American Millennials. The UNWTO has released a statement condemning the renewed restrictions.