In 2008 I went to an international film festival in Havana. I learned that some Cubans had taken 2 weeks off from work, half of their yearly allowance, to see as many movies as possible. Some of them had no hope of traveling abroad. Sitting in a dark theater and watching a film set in another country was their only chance to see the world.
The thaw in US-Cuba relations will help relieve Cuba's profound isolation. But even as Americans flock to Cuba, many Cubans will not be able to travel. The main reason is money: The average monthly salary in Cuba is still around $20 a month.
At that same film festival I met a young Cuban who dreamed of going to New York to study photography or film. He was a smart, ambitious university student. He wasn't interested in emigrating. He just wanted to see the outside world and acquire skills that he couldn't get at home, at least not yet. But his lack of money, combined with the bureaucratic obstacles surrounding international travel, made this journey impossible. He told me that he once cried after bringing a relative to the airport. Not because his relative was lucky enough to travel, but because his own chances seemed so remote.
Over the past seven years, he has come up with various schemes to go abroad, but they all fell apart, mostly due to lack of funding. Yet he continued to search online for opportunities, which is not easy in a country where the Internet is painfully slow, if you can find access at all.
This year he was finally accepted to a month-long summer photography program in New York City. Perhaps thanks to the US-Cuba thaw, the pieces were finally falling into place. His workplace is supporting his application and he is not worried about a visa. But the funding obstacles remain. He thinks he can scrape together enough money for airfare, but has no idea how to pay for the $3000 tuition plus the costs of spending a month in NYC. The total amount would be around $5000. He has had no success in applying for grants, perhaps because he is neither an established Cuban artist nor a dissident. It now looks likely that $5000, a tiny amount in the world of fellowships and grants, will prevent him from pursuing his dream.
My friend’s situation is far from unique in Cuba. I would like to use the prize money to help make the US-Cuba rapprochement a reality for young, ambitious Cubans. $25,000 would cover grants for three to five individuals to spend around a month in the United States. They could study anything that would further their professional development: from writing to marketing to learning how to create a start-up. After returning to Cuba, these individuals could contribute to the development of their local communities by mentoring others or perhaps even creating jobs.
A $5,000 grant could change a young Cuban's life.