HAVANA – A group of Americans has found a unique way to work in Cuba (search) despite tough U.S. restrictions on travel to the communist-run island: building playgrounds for children.
Forty-nine volunteers led by San Diego real estate investor Bill Hauf (search) are spending the week digging holes and assembling modern park equipment in four Havana neighborhoods.
But they aren't talking about politics, particularly the U.S. trade and travel restrictions aimed at squeezing the communist-run island's economy and pushing out President Fidel Castro (search).
"We have been very successful with this project because we have been apolitical," Hauf said. "Both governments seem to understand this program is to help children — in this case, they happen to be Cuban children. Our objective is to not take political sides."
Hauf led his first group of American volunteers here two years ago to help construct three playgrounds.
The Treasury Department grants Americans licenses to travel to Cuba for humanitarian, religious and academic trips. The U.S. travel ban prohibits all Americans from ordinary tourism in Cuba.
As the government has tightened those limits, the numbers of Americans visiting has dropped. And those who do come seem increasingly reticent to speak out against the decades-old U.S. policy.
The number of Americans coming to Cuba fell 40 percent from 85,809 in 2003 to 51,027 last year, according to a Cuban government report issued this week in protest against U.S. sanctions. The numbers fell further in 2005, the report said.
So-called "people-to-people" travel was encouraged under former President Clinton to plant democratic ideals in Cuba. But President Bush's administration has sought more stringent enforcement of the restrictions forbidding most travel here.
The Bush government complains many American travelers and institutions given U.S. licenses abuse them by engaging in "disguised tourism."
New U.S. rules purportedly aim to cut down on tourism under academic or humanitarian pretenses and ensure Americans see more than white-sand beaches and salsa concerts. Those coming without permission are being fined in record numbers.
"We have to be extremely cautious and make sure that they really want to come and work every day," Hauf said of the volunteers for the playground-building trip. "So far, we've had 100 percent participation."
Americans in shorts and baseball caps set up brightly colored climbing equipment on a recent scorching day in a corner park in a western Havana neighborhood while passers-by peered through a metal fence.
"How lovely!" exclaimed 65-year-old Candidad Gallego, an umbrella shading her from the sun's intense rays. "We are really happy with this — my granddaughter can hardly wait to come."
The Americans came from more than a dozen states. A dance instructor from Illinois and a retired military officer in Oregon were among them.
"Some of the buildings look really old, it's so different," Katie Roberts, a 17-year-old from Arlington, Va., said of Havana. "But it's good just to be outside the little bubble we live in. This is a lot more rewarding than the beach."
The high school senior's father, Mike Roberts, said he was seeing a different side of Cuba than the one presented by the U.S. government.
"We are so isolated from the Cubans," said the older Roberts, an attorney who represents a shipping company with service to Cuba. "We have impressions that tend to be distorted because of the rhetoric our governments throw at people."
The group — It's Just the Kids, Inc. — was constructing four new playgrounds on the weeklong trip ending Saturday. They can return to Cuba in the spring to build four more under its two-year U.S. license.