I made my first trip to Cuba in April 2012 with a group from Witness for Peace (WFP). Soon after that visit, I began organizing People to People trips there under the auspices of the Sarasota Chapter of MEDA. People to People trips provide opportunities for travelers to have direct contact with Cuban people and provide a window to their everyday life.
The MEDA Sarasota chapter had particular interest in supporting entrepreneurial activities which might be emerging in Cuba in a changing economic landscape. As a communist/socialist country, Cuba is not known for its support of entrepreneurial pursuits, and yet there were many people who were operating small businesses in challenging environments.
In 2016, we met two women who had just launched a sewing cooperative. The leader, Alina, a domestic abuse survivor, shared her vision. If she could teach other survivors to sew, they could gain economic independence, and the cooperative members could provide emotional support for each other. As I listened to Alina speak, I was moved by her passion, but I had to wonder how she could accomplish this with a couple old sewing machines, a few accessories, and working out of a small screened front porch. She had one cloth bag for sale, which we bought. As we left, we said, “When we come back next time, have more things for us to buy.”
Returning a few months later with our group, the sewing cooperative was prepared for us. There were now four members. They had Christmas ornaments, clothing and small stuffed toys for sales. Our group purchased some items, but most of their customers were people from the community.
On our last trip in November 2019, the cooperative had 16 members and included a woman with Down’s Syndrome and a man who was deaf. The cooperative was now co-ed. They had made enough profit to purchase their own space, a third-floor room that held numerous sewing machines and other accessories needed for their business. They were clearly a sustainable organization.
A late update. On March 30th, we received a message from Alina. In November, someone from our group had donated squares of cloth; probably quilt patches, that the women didn’t know what to make with them. Here is her message. “Without realizing it, we were preparing for this time. We designed a really useful mask with three layers of cotton fabric and then the colorful fabric on the outside of the masks. We donate the masks to people who can’t afford to buy them and sell the others. It is so wonderful to provide employment to more women who are making masks, thanks for all the fabric.”
One of the greatest satisfactions that I’ve had in my time in Cuba is to see this group of women, under the leadership of a visionary, succeed and thrive. In our last time together, Alina shared that her Christian faith compelled her to help people who are in need, and they plan to continue to grow.