For the last 12 years, she has lived in Cuba and seen the country’s slow but sure transformation. Employed by a Portuguese NGO, between humanitarian aid and development projects, she believes in the “wonderful Cuban people.”
Sandra Lopes was born in Esposende, near Porto, and studied biological engineering at the University of Minho. However, ever since she became “fascinated with Jacques Costeau documentaries,” she felt she should do “something for this world”. After specialising in environmental contamination control, she was recruited by multinational consultancy firm, Delloite & Touche, where she made it to senior consultant and acquired the competencies she considers essential to do what she does today. “Although I had everything that a young woman of that age could wish for, dee down, I felt a certain claustrophobia, a certain dissatisfaction about not doing something that made a difference in the world.”
Then, fate gave her “a helping hand.” “I discovered the work of the NGDO [non-governmental development organization] Oikos, I sent my CV and I was called for an interview. I was interested in international cooperation, more specifically in renewable energies in developing countries, which was of strategic interest to Oikos. Because Cuba is a country with considerable potential in this field, I was sent here as a volunteer for a year.” 12 years have come and gone and Sandra is now Oikos’ regional representative, working in its main areas of intervention: humanitarian aid and development support in key sectors.
That said, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. “My life changed radically. I arrived in Cuba knowing nothing and no one, and the first six months were very hard. I had to overcome personal limits I was hitherto unaware of, everything was different. But humans have this remarkable ability to adapt when they believe in or want something badly. And that’s what happened to me.” Despite being poor and major shortages, Cuba “is a beautiful country with beautiful people and enormous potential for development.” “I feel that I’m making a contribution here, part of a story experienced every day. Today, Cuba is also home, the place where I live and have friends, where I met my partner and ended up with a new family.”
Making a difference
As regional representative of this type of organization, Sandra is always busy, dividing her time between development support, humanitarian aid for people affected by natural disasters or support for more vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, orphans and the disabled. In this last area, it is crucial to create tools and capacities for pilot schemes in strategic sectors, such as agriculture and renewable energies. Sandra assesses and diagnoses situations, delineates projects, finds funding and implements activities in the field, attempting to achieve the desired results and guarantee their sustainability – both economic and environmental.
“Cubans have an impressive human and professional capacity, especially in health, biotechnology and research, and they need the world to open up so they can grow. With the embargo, it’s very difficult to import resources to develop our projects. I wish they would let us breathe and see what happens. I live here and feel that there’s a desire to grow, to know and do more. When I arrived, the situation was complicated, there wasn’t any kind of private endeavour. I’ve seen this transition and how the whole social dynamic of the country has changed.”
Despite President Obama re-establishing diplomatic relations between the USA and Cuba, which was an important moment in the country’s recent history, the economic embargo continues and “things have changed little.” Sandra is sure that everything would be easier without the embargo, but believes that only Cubans, not third parties, can determine their own destiny. The country’s education, health and human values “would make any developed country in the world envious.” “I hope that never changes.”
Although work takes up a lot of her time, often obliging her to leave the capital to monitor the projects that Oikos has all over the island, Havana is her home. “I like living in the Miramar neighbourhood, but the best part of the city is Havana Vieja, the historic centre, which is a World Heritage Site.” It’s here that you feel the city’s buzz, its unmistakable decadent charm. “Wandering through the streets is like stepping back in time.” Another favourite place she recommends to friends is the Fábrica de Arte Cubana (fac.cu), the country’s first public-private cultural initiative. Led by the young X Alfonso and run by artists, it’s involved in various areas: theatre, dance, music, photography and fine arts, fashion and jewellery. “Sometimes, I feel like I could be in Berlin, Lisbon or New York, but no, I’m in a new Cuba, made by Cubans, for Cubans.”
Despite feeling that she’s also part of this new movement, Sandra also misses her birthplace: “Social networks help me keep in touch with my family and whenever I go to Portugal, I bring stuff back. Cod, olive oil, sweets.”
by Patrícia Brito
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