A trip to Cuba made it very clear for Licking County Chamber of Commerce President Cheri Hottinger how important it is for any downtown area to maintain its buildings, even with just a power wash and a coat of paint.

A trip to Cuba made it very clear for Licking County Chamber of Commerce President Cheri Hottinger how important it is for any downtown area to maintain its buildings, even with just a power wash and a coat of paint.

From Oct. 13-21, Hottinger and 34 others took advantage of a rare opportunity to visit the country.

"Cuba is only 112 miles away from Florida, but it felt like a million miles away from home," Hottinger said. "The two hardest things for me, other than not having access to the Internet or use of my cellphone, was seeing how poor the country is. I think that having a better appreciation for my country, state and county can only help me in promoting all the great things we have to offer.

"It also opened my eyes to why it is so important to take care of our infrastructure needs," she said. "Once buildings and roads start to deteriorate, it makes the city or town you live in look dirty and gives the impression that they just don't care about it. That is not something I want to happen in any part of Licking County."

Hottinger said the Licking County chamber took 29 people, mostly county residents, on the trip.

"We had six additional people join our group once we got to Miami," she said. "They were from Michigan, Maine and another chamber in Ohio."

Hottinger said the U.S .government approved some short-term licenses for group travel companies.

"The company we used, called Chamber Explorations, was given a one-year license to take groups to Cuba, so we decided to sign on and see if anyone locally wanted to go," she said.

Upon arriving in Cuba, Hottinger said she continually had to remind herself that the government owns just about everything there -- even the restaurants and hotels -- and all the employees are working for the government.

"It's a good educational experience," she said.

Hottinger said Cuba was poorer economically than she had expected, and its government even practices food rationing.

"I'm sure in the '40s and '50s, it was the place to be," she said, looking back to when Cuba was a popular American tourist destination with casinos and clubs before its 1959 revolution and the ensuing U.S. trade embargo.

Hottinger said it was obvious, even in Havana, Cuba's capital, that none of the infrastructure had been improved since the revolution, making the city look old and dirty, even though that wasn't representative of its people.

"The people of Cuba are clean, and I didn't see trash lying around," she said. "They would beg for soap. Even if your city is not dirty but you let your buildings deteriorate, it seems like a dirty city. It gives the community a bad feeling."

Hottinger said her group visited Havana, Western Cuba, Central Cuba West and some of Central Cuba East.

Cubans don't like to be called communists, she said.

"They call themselves 'socialists,' even though the government belongs to the Communist Party," she said.

Hottinger said Cuba's health care and schools are free.

"If you need to see your doctor in Cuba, you go to what it called a doctor's house," she said. "If you need a specialist, you most likely will go to the hospital."

Hottinger said Cuba's education system is very different from America's.

"When they are in high school, they are given a list of career choices that they may be interested in," she said. "They rank their top choices, but that doesn't guarantee that they will ultimately get to do their No. 1 choice for a number of reasons."

Hottinger said they may not pass some tests to enter the military, for example.

"If they want to continue their education at the university, they now have to pass some difficult tests in the subjects of math, Spanish and Cuban history," she said. "They have made the tests harder because they have too many professional people coming out of the university and not enough skilled-trade workers, and there are people needed in the agriculture industry."

Hottinger said even if students pass the tests to go on to the university level, chances are they won't be able to select which field to study.

"The government will tell them what to study, based on the need of the country at the time," she said.

Hottinger said she wanted to experience Cuba before trade reopens with the United States, if it does.

Opening up trade, she said, might provide Cuba with some opportunities for change.

"If that ever happens," she said, "I'd like to go back."