Andy Bello (second from left) shares stories and insight from his recent visits to Cuba.

ith the United States moving toward normalizing relations with Cuba, this once-forbidden island has become a hot topic of conversation (and the subject of our most recent cover story). For proud Baruch alumnus Andy Bello (’77), visiting Cuba is more than just a curiosity. This Cuba native, who moved to New York City at the age of three, has made multiple trips to his birth country since 2011.

Bello recently spoke with BCAM about his Cuba experiences.

When did you first travel to Cuba?
I was born in Cuba, and my parents moved us to the Upper West Side of Manhattan when I was three years old because they felt we would have a better life here. My first return trip back was in April 2011, after my mom passed away. I went with my dad, who served as my tour guide. As Cuban Americans, we are permitted to visit Cuba under a family visitation visa, which is one of the 12 permitted activities. I have also returned on two other occasions on church mission trips, also permitted activities.

Was Cuba what you were expecting?
Much different, actually. The people there love Americans and want to know everything about America. Havana was so much larger than I had ever envisioned it to be, and the history there—dating back to the 1570s—was just amazing. Old Havana has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so it is very much the same as it was 300 or 400 years ago.

What were some of your fondest memories of that first Cuba trip?
We visited a number of historical sites: Morro Castle, built in 1597 to protect Havana Harbor; El Palacio Nacional, home of Cuban presidents, including Batista; the Museum of the Revolution; and Hemingway’s home. Also, I was raised Catholic but have been Presbyterian for the past 28 years. I was able to visit not only the Catholic Church where I was baptized but also the first Presbyterian Church of Cuba, built in 1906, which I support via my religious mission work.

What were the biggest differences you noticed between life in Cuba and life in the United States?
Let me say this: Cubans, considering their conditions, are very happy people. They love family, Cuban music, and every child gets a free education and healthcare. But the major differences are access to a lot of things we take for granted, like food, clothing, and transportation. In fact, in Cuba an efficient and dependable national transportation system is completely lacking. Therefore, classic American cars from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s are actually the most popular modes of transportation, especially in Havana.

You have since visited Cuba again on mission trips. What type of work have you done, and how did those experiences impact you?
There’s a growing and vibrant Presbyterian church community throughout Cuba, now with 38 congregations. I organized a small group of members from my church in Englewood, N.J., and we went on a trip to meet the pastors and congregations of three churches in and near Havana. We’ve supported, through our fellowship and finances, programs that provide meals for seniors and educational and arts opportunities for kids. My most recent trip was in April of this year, and I’m happy to say I’m organizing our next mission trip, which departs JFK on September 27.

Classic American cars from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s are some of the most popular methods of transportation in Cuba.

Was it particularly meaningful to reconnect with your birthplace?
Absolutely—it was very moving to return to the country that I was born in. And I would also mention that, naturally, as a businessperson, it’s been interesting to see the growth and development, over just the past three years, of family-owned businesses in Cuba and the spirit of entrepreneurship, which is very much alive and thriving.

Speaking of entrepreneurship in Cuba, Baruch student journalists traveled to Cuba and reported on local entrepreneurship in the award-winning Dollars & Sense. Were you surprised to learn of Baruch’s numerous ties to Cuba?
I wouldn’t say that I was shocked, but I was pleasantly surprised that Baruch has professors, like Ted Henken, whom I would consider experts on Cuban entrepreneurship and Cuban culture. And I’m delighted to have learned that the journalism department, with Dollars & Sense, has gone on student trips to Cuba. The future is about the students at Baruch today. Exposing them to the Cuban people and Cuban culture is how relationships are built and how countries and our people come together in peace and harmony as citizens of planet Earth.

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