Ten Observations - Reflections About Cuba
Following our visit in January – February 2015
David E. Nelson
“Our human destiny is to become the heart of the universe that embraces the whole of the Earth Community. We are just a speck in the universe, but we are beings with capacity to feel comprehensive compassion in the midst of an ocean of intimacy. That is the direction of our becoming more fully human.” Brian Swimme
1. Cuba is a fertile land filled with natural resources. One person commented that "you drop a seed in the ground and it will grow." Much sugar cane has been harvested, but now there are small farms growing a rich variety of plants. Oil is being sucked out of the ground. No fracking - yet. I only saw a small part of this beautiful island, but what I saw invites me to appreciate the sun, soil, rain, and others gifts from our precious planet.
2. The people of Cuba are beautiful. Their courage and patience are models of the human agenda. Their smiles and welcome comments are amazing. From little children to several in their 90s, the people were sharing hugs and kisses constantly. They are very excited about things changing between Cuba and the United States. Most, of course, have never lived with an open relationship with the country 90 miles away. Not a single person I met had a negative thing to say about the people of the USA. Some do share the concern about some of our political and military actions.
3. The arts are thriving in Cuba. “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Pablo Picasso. Works of art exist from large murals in pubic buildings to small handicrafts shared at a local church. There is dust in daily life in Cuba and in ever country art is needed. I enjoyed both the older statues celebrating the history of this nation and the current visions of art on the street. Street artists would do a one line drawing and give it to you with hopes of a small contribution. There are no billboards advertizing products, but the streets and buildings are filled with graffiti about The Revolution and Socialism. In an alley in Habana there is a rich collection of artworks offered by the Santeria community.
4. The Government of Cuba is changing. Cuba has been on a rugged journey both economically and politically. Christopher Columbus landed in 1492. The first African slaves were brought to Cuba in 1522. Sugar becomes primary export in 1800. In 1879 Slavery comes to an end. Jose Marti, great national hero, is killed in battle in 1895. The United States occupied Cuba from 1898-1902, from 1906-1909, from 1917-1923. The US supported Batista until he fled in 1959. The Revolution has dominated the Cuban Island since 1959. The Bay of Pigs invasion, the U.S. trade embargo and the missile crisis have left a bitter taste for many Cubans. In 1965 Castro reorganized The Popular Socialist Party as the Communist Party of Cuba. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was killed, most likely by the CIA, in 1967. In recent years Cuba has changed officially from being an “atheist” to a “secular” country. Private investments are growing from a variety of countries and private homes and farms are now increasing in number. The visits of Pope John Paul II in 1998 and former President Jimmy Carter in 2002 increased hope for the people of Cuba. When the Castro brothers die no one knows for certain what direction the government will move.
5. Most people love the idea of ending the US blockade. We visited with a small cross section of people in our trip to Cuba. We talked to and listened to travel agents and a tour guide. We had good conversations with people in three small town churches, the Episcopal Cathedral, and the Lutheran Bishop. We spent time with leaders in the Santeria Community. We talked to taxi drivers, merchants, and others on the street. Ann and I often wandered off and struck up conversations with friends who had been just strangers before. Sometimes I ask about relationships with the US, other times the people initiated comments. Without exception, everyone is thrilled about changes in our government’s policy toward Cuba. In my pondering before the trip, during the pilgrimage, and after returning to the home I love so much I have increased my passion for more openness. I truly believe that conversing with people is superior to talking about people. I trust the art of speaking from the heart and listening with an open mind. I am more and more convinced that addressing the challenges of the global community through dialogue and curiosity produces more hope about the future than building barriers and weapons. I am convinced that peace on this planet is possible and when people get to know each other across barriers of nationality, class, and religion a small step toward that noble goal has been taken.
6. The Christian Church has survived and is active. As I mentioned in reflection #4 Cuba is now officially a “secular state.” They do not endorse a religion or forbid religious people to practice their religion. I was a bit surprised that the church has survived and often thrived during that last 50 years. It was a precious gift to meet Christians in their 80s and 90s who have been attending Mass every Sunday throughout their lives. They do remember the fall of an oppressive leader who had been supported by our government. They remember the difficult period when the economy was in peril. They survived these and other times at least in part because they are people of faith. They discovered in the weekly celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus a story that gave them hope in the deaths they experienced. They were nurtured by a faith community that visited them when they were ill or in prison. They found great satisfaction in sharing the little bit they had with those who had even less. In short, they realized that the community of the church is “in but not off” this world and that continually being reminded of that made life bearable and much of the time good. In the ordinary events of their days they nurtured and celebrated that the quality of life is not determined by what happens to your or around you, but how you respond to those events and how you create a community to be a part of.
7. Santeria practices are part of many Cuban’s lives. A man who teaches at a Havana University suggests that 75% of the population of Cuba is involved in Santeria practices at some time. Santeria (Way of the Saints) is an Afro-Caribbean religion based on Yoruba beliefs and traditions, with some Roman Catholic elements added. It is a synergetic religion that grew out of the slave trade in Cuba. In Cuba a person must be baptized before using the practices. There is an initiation process of several years that creates priests, both male and female. While in Cuba, Ann and I met with a teacher who spoke English. He gave us Santeria 101 and was very helpful. He then took us to the home of a priest who held a session with me that was enlightening and interesting. The home was beautiful and had a number of rooms. Each room had an altar with various sacred objects. After a “session” our new friends gave us both a blessing ritual. The hospitality shown us was very touching. When I asked about taking pictures, they said, “Please take all you want, we have nothing to hide.” When we left they reminded us when we are back in Habana again we have a home with them.
8. A “Classless Society” is a great idea, but difficult to put into practice. The vision of The Revolution has been to create and maintain a “Classless Society: From each according to ability, to each according to need.” Complete health care is provided for every Cuban “from cradle to grave.” Public education from pre-school through graduate and trade training is free for all Cubans. Social Security is guaranteed all citizens. Infant mortality is lower than in the United States. Over 20,000 Cuban physicians are serving outside the country and are often sought after by developed nations. There is a shortage of medical equipment that is a serious challenge and the pharmacy I visited had only a few select medications. There is very little pay difference between a college professor, doctor, merchant, or street sweeper. Each person is given the opportunity to be educated and develop, as they feel called. That is why some of the mini-taxis were driven by doctors in order to supplement their income. In the past there were no CEOs being paid hundreds of times what a worker in their factory might receive. Capitalism is creeping into Cuba and many shared a concern about this. Greed powers the engine of capitalism. Service and community are the motivators of socialism.
9. Socialism is a social and economic system characterized by social ownership of the means of production and co-operative management of the economy, as well as a political theory and movement that aims at the establishment of such a system. One characteristic is called “usage value” and it seeks to value goods to the needs of society rather than to produce profit and capital accumulation. Socialism advocates that the people own the means of production, either directly or through government agencies. Cuban Socialism believes that wealth and income should be shared more equally among all the people rather that by a few at the top. Socialism, unlike communism, does not favor violent overthrow of capitalist by the workers. The main goal is to narrow, but not totally remove, the gap between the rich and the poor. The government takes the responsibility to redistribute production and wealth, making the society fairer and leveled. We certainly saw poor communities and we visited a rich suburb in Habana. In no place we visited did it feel like a “police state”. There are very few guns in Cuba and therefore neighborhoods are much safer than in the United States and gun crime is virtually nonexistent. Prostitution, casinos and pornography are illegal. The government is not as transparent as in a democracy and as Cuba moves in that direction, I am certain there is much we will discover.
10. I still embrace the vision of The Cuban Revolution. Perhaps it is because I read the Bible and take it seriously, but not literally. Perhaps I am tired of receiving calls on a weekly, sometimes daily basis, to donate to a political candidate or party. Maybe because I see the effects of a growing gap between the super rich and the other 98% in my country. Maybe I am just a helpless romantic. I long for a society where people live in community and seek to serve because it’s the right thing to do. I believe that education and health care are human rights that every citizen in a developed nation should receive. I am glad to be a citizen of The USA, but I learned from Cuba we can be more faithful to our original vision as well.