Pilgrimage To Cuba

The last time Susanne and I were in Cuba was in 2004 with a National Council of Churches delegation. We were there to celebrate the opening of the first Christian church since the Revolution in 1959. It was a Greek Orthodox Church and Fidel Castro actually handed over the keys of the property to the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, and we were there to witness the “transfer!”

Castro even attended a lecture and reception that evening where Bartholomew — sometimes known as the “Green Patriarch” because of his environmental advocacy — delivered a passionate address, seemingly well received by Fidel. The next day we met with the Cuban Council of Churches where we learned something of what it was like to be a Christian under the Castro regime.

We were told that there was no real active persecution (unless you were a political dissident!) but that Christians were denied preferment in jobs or educational opportunities. A kind of “soft persecution,” if you will.

This year (2019) we returned to Cuba on a cruise sponsored by Educational Opportunities and The Friends of the Episcopal Church in Cuba. Our host was The Rev. Dr. Luis Leon, a Cuban by birth who had been sent to the United States in 1960 under the “Peter Pan” initiative of Church World Service and grew up in adoptive families and boarding schools of the Episcopal Church. Luis was later ordained a priest in our church (I actually was one of his canonical examiners in Central Florida many years ago!) and eventually became the Rector of St. John’s, Lafayette Square (the “Church of the Presidents”) from which he recently retired.

Luis delivered three lectures on-board before we arrived in Cuba. The first was a brief history: The island was occupied by indigenous peoples prior to the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Spain conquered Cuba shortly after Columbus’ arrival and decimated the native tribes. A series of rebellions during the 19th century failed to end Spanish rule, but after the Spanish-American War in 1898 Spain withdrew and Cuba gained formal independence in 1902.

As far back as 1818 Spain had opened Cuban ports to the U.S., and John Quincy Adams became the first American President to write of wanting to annex Cuba. From that time, the Cuban people have been wary of the United States’ “designs” on the island nation. Two fateful points were included in Cuba’s constitution which remain to this day: (1) the U.S. can intervene in Cuba whenever it thinks necessary; and (2) the base in Guantanamo Bay was established! This, due to the Platt Amendment.

Jim Crow laws were eventually imported to Cuba. Most restaurants only served “whites.” Percussion drums were banned because of their African influence. Protest against this began by dancing in the streets to the beat of drums (the government couldn’t arrest hundreds at once!). These dances were the birth of the Conga line!

Racism still exists in Cuba. All the leaders of of European descent. In 1933 Batista was an army officer who helped put in place a new government. In 1952, he decided to stop being the puppet master and to become President himself. In 1953 Fidel Castro, a young attorney, led an unsuccessful revolt. He was (for some reason) released from prison and moved to Mexico. From 1956-1959 he returned to eventual revolutionary victory.

Most of the revolution took place in the eastern part of the island, far from Havana. The U.S. had mixed reactions to Castro. He was popular in certain progressive circles because he sought to oust the dictator Batista, but the U.S. government initially supported Batista. Finally, we embargoed arms sales to his government and it fell in 1958.

Castro took over the 1959 and “nationalized” everything in 1960. In 1961 an attempted coup — the Bay of Pigs invasion — was repelled by Castro. When the U.S. didn’t really do anything about that, many families who could afford to do so sent their children to the U.S. or left themselves. Some 14,000 children were evacuated, including our host and guide, Luis Leon.

1962 featured the Cuban missile crisis and John F. Kennedy’s game of chicken with Nikita Khrushchev which many of us remember so well. In 1965, Fidel allowed anyone who wished to leave the island and thousands did.

In my next blog post, I will continue to relate the history, particularly as regards the Church in Cuba, described by Dr. Leon, and tell something of our visit to the Episcopal Cathedral in Havana on January 20, 2019.

 

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