Final Reflections On Cuba…and How YOU Can Help!

Our guide in Cuba, The Rev. Dr. Luis Leon, joked, “We Cubans speak the worst Spanish in the world! People can always tell I’m Cuban. We speak a kind of slangy Spanish and have a tendency to omit the last syllable of our words.” Luis reflected how poignant it is to return to the land of his birth and yet, each time, no matter how familiar it all feels, he knows he does not belong there anymore. This is the tension all immigrant live with — love for the land of their birth, love for their new home of residence.

Continuing with some of the history, Dr. Leon pointed out that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 dramatically changed things for Cuba. The Soviets had been Cuba’s “best friend” and economic supporter for many years, buying sugar at inflated prices and selling oil to Cuba at a low price. When the USSR fell, so did Cuba’s economic safety net.

During this time, electricity barely existed. Human need increased greatly as one U.S. dollar equaled 150 Cuban pesos. In 1994 the first serious demonstrations against the Castro regime took place. In the midst of the rioting Castro announced that “whoever wanted to leave, could go.” More than 35,000 took the opportunity, most heading to the U.S. Men, women and children packed into small boats, makeshift rafts, and set out for Florida in the largest exodus from Cuba since the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. Eventually, both governments called a halt to it because it was so dangerous and many people lost their lives at sea.

With so many Cubans now in “exile,” lots of money was sent back to the island nation by these immigrant families. Some 800 million dollars provided a huge economic boost throughout the 1990s. Castro began loosening up the economy and some entrepreneurs began to emerge.

And today, tourist dollars are essential. For example, a dentist may earn 900 a year, a tour guide may earn 400 a day! If you have U.S. dollars, you are OK, if not, you’re in trouble. Many have moved from the rural areas to Havana and there is a serious housing crisis. Four generations may live in one house, usually rented from the government.

We saw the poverty in Havana, but even more so on a visit to Cienfuegos, a city on Cuba’s south coast. We did visit a simple art gallery (outside of which we were entertained by lively music and dance in the street) and an amazing graphic arts studio where we were able to purchase a lovely print. Many businesses are a combination of government ownership and private entrepreneurship.

Our local guides were very careful in their criticism of the Castros. One young man, who is lecturer at the University, “moonlighting” as a guide, was more openly critical of the corruption in the Castro regime but is more hopeful about the newly-elected President Miguel Diaz-Canel. He is a career politician, but at least is not a member of the Castro family, putting to rest the idea that the Castros would try and put in place a family dynasty.

One older guide we had was a linguist by training. He said that he had studied Russian languages, but that is no longer so necessary in Cuba (!) so he is now a guide! I asked him if there are any wealthy people in Cuba today. He said, “Oh no, we are all equal in Cuba.” Then, with an eye-roll, “But some are more equal than others!”

So, the poverty is real, the 1956 Chevy’s fun to look at, but obviously the result of the Cuban embargo in place basically since 1959. One of our guides pointed out that there are three eras of automobiles in Cuba — American cars of the 1950s, Russian cars from 1960-1990, and Chinese cars since then. “You can tell from that who our friends have been,” he chuckled.

Yes, the poverty is real. Yet, there is universal health care and education and Cuba exports their doctors all over the world to help in emergency situations and natural disasters. Many of those physicians send money home to their families and communities. Homelessness is rare as people are taken off the streets by their families (which remain strong) and in government shelters. It is all a very mixed bag.

My hope is that the Trump Administration and its successors will reverse the tightening of restrictions and return to a path of openness explored by President Obama. It would be a shame for American tourist dollars to turn beautiful Cuba into another Miami Beach, but there are other forms of investment and their only hope is to develop many more trading partners than China, Venezuela, and Belize!

Episcopalians (and others) can help by joining The Friends of The Episcopal Church in Cuba (www.friendsofeccuba.org) Their stated goals are to:

+Continue transforming our churches into vibrant community centers that include as many people as possible.

+Restore and develop the physical infrastructure of our properties.

+Create an Episcopal campus of vibrant worship, and sustainability education (ecological, economic, and spiritual)

+Unleash the full potential of the team (of ordained and lay ministers)

+And, finally, pursue new sources of funding

 

It is also possible to find Companion Parishes with the Episcopal Church in Cuba. For more information contact admin@friendsofeccuba.org (203-858-5794)

As I said to the Sunday morning congregation at the Cathedral in Havana: “My wife Susanne and I first visited Cuba in 2004 with a delegation from the National Council of Churches to meet with the Cuban Council of Churches, an ecumenical body. We fell in love with Cuba and the Cuban church on that trip. We are still in love! Gracias for welcoming us back again!”

 

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