Learning from Cuba: Observations and Reflections of My Pilgrimage

Learning from Cuba: Observations and Reflections of My Pilgrimage by Steve Clemens. December 2010

[From November 27-December 4, 2010 I traveled (legally!) to Cuba as part of a 18 member delegation from St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis. We went to celebrate the installation of Griselda Delgado as the new Episcopalian Bishop of Cuba. As one of two non-Episcopalians on the trip, I felt thoroughly included and welcomed by both my fellow travelers and those we met in Cuba.]

Two weeks before leaving to fly to Havana, many of those traveling together met at the Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis to talk about plans for the trip. As part of that gathering, we received our plane tickets and a schedule of our itinerary. Included in that was an essay adapted from material from Paul Strickland entitled “Why Do Pilgrimage?” It encouraged us to travel not as tourists but rather as pilgrims on a transformative journey. Rather than go as observers, we were urged to “become pilgrims who come with searching hearts”.

Our trip gave me much “grist for the mill”, things to think about and ponder for a while. It is not “sound bite”-ready, nor is it likely to be. Our nation has a complicated (and mostly shameful) history with our island neighbor and decisions made by both governments over the years have squandered many opportunities for a healthy reconciliation. The experience was sobering yet celebratory. We have much to share with each other: it should not be a one-way street modeling the colonial past or the domination of empire present.

The Cuban experience since the collapse of the USSR in 1989 has left the island with some harsh economic realities but a resilient population. Like the Iraqis I met in Baghdad three months before our present war, the people I met who were ostensibly my “enemy” greeted me with warm hospitality, curiosity, and much enthusiasm. Both peoples have lived under repressive regimes yet still enjoyed benefits many within our dominant empire lack: access to free healthcare and education for all. Both societies, suffering under economic sanctions imposed by or at the bequest of our government, lacked affordable consumer goods that many of us take for granted. The assumption being that when the people hurt enough, they will rise up and overthrow their governments. It didn’t work in the 13 years before our invasion in Iraq; it has been tried for more than 50 years in Cuba, so far without “success”.

Here are a few stories I wrote during my first few days in country; hopefully more will come as I find time to process the events but I wanted to share some initial impressions soon after returning.

The “Old Man” and the Sea

There is a statute at the end of The Prado, a walkway umbrellaed with trees overhead that proceeds from near the Capitol building in Havana to the wall protecting the city from the ocean to the north. At the end of the walkway, looking out over the expanse of water ahead is a sculpture of marble and bronze. From a distance I assumed it referenced Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea but the front it tells me that it is dedicated to a poet/martyr, J.C. Zenea, and dated in 1871 while Cuba remained under colonial rule of Spain. Since Hemingway did much of his writing at a hotel nearby, maybe he was referencing this statute. As I cross the Malecon, the street parallel to the sea wall, I enter the area of the remains of one of the two forts that attempted to protect the entrance to Havana Bay and the harbors within.

After listening to a lone bagpipe player greeting the Sunday morning by playing tunes over the Florida Straits toward Key West, and watching a fisherman cast his line into the sea, a dark-skinned Afro-Cuban man greets me as I take photographs of the forts and surrounding vistas. He inquires, “Que pais?” asking what country am I from. (Many Cubans I encountered on the streets asked me if I were from Spain or Chile because they don’t expect to encounter many Americans because of our country’s travel restrictions.) When I respond that I am from the U.S., he asks what state and proceeds to tell me in English that is better than my Spanish that he once visited Des Moines.

He asked me to sit down with him on a nearby bench by the waterfront sea wall and tells me a slice of his life: he is 58 and helps take care of his 90 year-old father – the only family he has left. He works from 7 PM to 7 AM as a security guard at a local school – paid 2 Cuban pesos (worth about $0.15 U.S.) to guard the computers and other school equipment.

I could see the sadness in his eyes when I told him I was 60 and my own father was 89 – we were almost the same – but he said, “look at my wrinkled face compared to your smooth, young-looking face”. He did appear to be 10 years older than me. Life here is hard.

When I commiserated and denounced my own country’s embargo, he responded, “No, it is also the embargo that my own government sets up”. (Cuba’s government has strict limits on TV stations available and allows no access to the internet other than email. Certain other goods aren’t allowed in and prices are prohibitively expensive for many consumer goods, all blamed on the US embargo.) He shook his head and observed, “I don’t know if I’ll live to see the day of change here.” When I asked who would succeed the aging Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, when they die, he told me “nobody knows”. They’ve hung on to power without a clear succession plan that the people support.

What hath the revolution wrought? Many Americans rightly praise the Cuban ingenuity of keeping 1950s era automobiles running but much of “Habana” is crumbling from the lack of care for the infrastructure. Although not naming Fidel and Raul, this Cuban man felt the government was hoarding the resources for themselves and stifling other initiatives.

The high blood pressure he suffers from greatly restricts his diet and although he tells me he shouldn’t eat bread and pasta, he says he has only had bread and coffee for breakfast (it being the end of the month and his food ration long used up) and “soon it will be lunchtime”. It felt like it with the hot sun beating down on us although when I looked at my watch it was only 9:30.

Where is the investment in solar collectors? Clearly this “managed economy” has failed; is the rapacious capitalism I so often deplore and denounce the answer here?

He doesn’t ask but I hand this brother a $10. CUC note (worth about $11-12. US) and tell him to get some breakfast and to share it with his father. He had told me he was too old and not inclined to “hold a gun up to someone’s head” to get money to survive. “Besides, that’s not how I treat people”. But he is waiting, hoping that his countrymen and women will rise up and demand a government that can help lift them out of the grinding, urban poverty.

Returning from my walk, a teenage boy approaches me in the area in front of the Museum of the Revolution with his cart, broom, and two waste receptacles. He tells me his job is to clean up the park/walkway in front of the museum for which he is paid one Cuban peso a month. He is the only son of his mother with whom he lives. He asks if I can give him some money for food. I hand his a $3. CUC note and continue my walk.

Tuna For My Baby

I went into the small tienda/store looking to buy some bottled water in larger containers than our hotel carried. After spotting some (everything being behind the counter) and noticing a price sticker of $.70 CUC for the 2 liter bottle, I was approached by a 20-something Cuban young woman who asks me to buy her an ice cream treat from the locked freezer in front of me. After determining the price to be $1.55 CUC, I noticed that I had to get in line and wait my turn to make a purchase.

Waiting for the 4-5 customers ahead of me, my new “friend” points to a can of condensed milk in the display case and then pats her protruding belly and says, “You buy this for my baby”. I make no answer of committal and when the cashier approaches us for our turn to buy, she quickly points to the condensed milk and asks for 3 cans and then points to a huge can of tuna fish and asks the clerk for that. I quickly told her “no” but the clerk removed the price sticker and took one of the cans of milk over to her register and began ringing it up. I had no time to tell her I just wanted to purchase the bottled water.

When the clerk tells me the total price (which I didn’t understand with my limited Spanish), I told her I wanted “dos aguas grande” and she added that to the bill. She handed me her calculator that read “$13.75” so I fortunately had a $20. CUC note with which to pay. As I got my change, an older woman carrying a one-year-old child behind me taps me on the shoulder asking for “leche por mi hijo” – milk for my son – but my shopping adventure was finished for now. I asked for a plastic bag to carry my water, the expectant mother having already disappeared with her milk and tuna, leaving me with the thought that I hoped doctors’ warnings about too much tuna during pregnancy (due to mercury contamination) was less risky than the lack of protein.

An Encounter of a Different Kind

Colin, a third-year student at the Episcopal Seminary in Alexandria, VA asked if he could accompany me on another foray into central Havana, the area near our hotel, a former hotel/casino during the mafia-run days of Cuba under Batista before the success of the revolution was assured with Batista’s fleeing on New Years Day of 1959. I had told him of my earlier walk down The Prado to the sea wall and back while he was studying prior to his ordination exam that will occur later this spring. We walked near the Capitol building and took photos of the 1950s era cars and then continued down a narrow alley/street that was now bustling with people. Right away a couple with their school-aged son approached us asking where we were from, probably overhearing our conversation in English. The father added that he had visited New Jersey. Colin tells him “Washington, DC” and the man recognizes that but looks puzzled when I say Minnesota. Mentioning Minneapolis brings no more recognition but when I add “close to Chicago”, he lights up in recognition.

He tells us “Welcome to Cuba. This is a special festival day – Do you like beisbol?” [Our tour guide on the bus ride from the airport the day before had told us the baseball season officially opened on Sunday as we drove by the stadium for the Havana team.] He wants to tells us about it and shepherds us into a small bar down the alley where only the bar maid is present and tells us to have a seat. He asks Colin in Spanish if we can get some “refreshments” and Colin agrees. The barmaid quickly making 5 drinks and I quickly stop her before she adds rum into my drink.

So Colin’s and our new friend’s mojitos have rum, the other 3 do not. They want to talk to us about our impressions of Cuba, telling us that everything is good for them here – except they don’t get enough food. They blame the US embargo as the source of their troubles unlike my first encounter by the sea where the Cuban “government” was the main culprit.

We got the bill for our “education” – it was $25 CUC (about $30. US). I figure it is the government’s way to gain income since it owns virtually all the restaurants, stores, and bars in the nation. Do “tips” go to the wait staff or does the government take those as well? I paid the bill and started to leave. Although this man told us he worked at the nearby government-run hospital as a radiologist and his wife worked as a schoolteacher, he asked Colin to give him $20. CUC “for food”. Colin was rather surprised and came up with $10. so he turns to me to ask for more. I decline and we both left the bar asking ourselves if all encounters we will have with the locals will be on this basis. I try to avoid eye contact as we leave the area and return to the now-bustling Prado where artists are displaying their wares, hoping for a sale.

Our hotel is nearby and we return to our rooms to change clothes and get ready for the installation ceremony of the new bishop- not knowing then that it would run 3 hours in the very crowded Cathedral – but joyous nevertheless.

The Private-Public Conundrum

Our Cuban guide took us to a “private” family-owned restaurant for our supper on Monday evening. Located on the second floor of a building which was ostensibly their residence, I noticed the fancy woodwork design as we climbed the stairs. Named “La Gardenita” or Little Farmer, the d├ęcor of this restaurant and ambiance were noticeably different and the wait staff extremely welcoming and friendly in their cowboy hats and plunging necklines. The menu was impressive and the food presentation and quality was excellent.

Unlike the government-owned and run restaurants, this “palador” was an outgrowth of some limited private enterprise now allowed by the government since the Soviet largess dried up after the collapse of many communist economies and governments in 1989. I am a strong supporter of government programs for education, healthcare, social security, and a safety net for the poor – all of which Cuba seems to do better than the US – but it appears to me that there seems to allow little incentive in their economy for this kind of initiative. It was refreshing but it also caused me to wonder how far to let it progress lest it fester into the incredible gaps between the rich and the poor so evident in the US today. Tonight was a powerful argument in favor of a mixed economy that also allows room for private initiative and resourcefulness.

Jaded as we Americans often are, some of us wondered if “Maggie” our tour guide got a kickback from the restaurant for bringing in 18 customers. We are told “there is very little corruption here in Cuba” but one must wonder about the temptation when government wages are so low and consumer goods are rare and expensive.

Meeting With the “Obispa”

There is no word in proper Spanish for a woman bishop of the church - the language being so traditionally linked to an exclusive male-dominated hierarchy which continues today in the Roman Catholic Church. (A practice, I suspect, which leads many would-be Catholics to become Episcopalians!) Some argue that newly installed Bishop Griselda should be referred to as La Obispo, using the feminine pronoun with the masculine noun. Doug and his Catholic priest friend Gilberto, from the St. Vincent DePaul Order in Mississippi who has been living in Havana for seven years, discussed this back and forth after one of members of Gilberto's parish, a copy editor said it is incorrect. Doug triumphantly pointing out to his friend the Order of Worship program passed out at the service with the title: La Obispa. As old prejudices slowly die (too slowly for some of us), so too must the language change.

I could see the surprise on the taxi driver’s face on the return ride from the Cathedral as Susan explained to him where we had been (installing a woman bishop in the church!) – and then told him that she, too, was a priest – “sacerdote” – and her bishop (this time a male, Brian Prior, Bishop of Minnesota) was seated in the taxi directly behind her! The driver seemed to accept this in stride; after all, being under a secular and, some might say, an anti-religious government since 1959 has already changed many of the attitudes of younger generations. (It is said that more than 70% of today’s Cuban population has only known the government under “the revolution”, having been born after January 1, 1959.)

We met in the Bishop’s residence next to the Cathedral two days after her installation for two hours. With the retired Suffragan Bishop, Ulysses, translating, Bishop Griselda talked about her desire to help her parishes to become self-sustaining. She wants her parishioners to come up with the plans for what they would like to do (agriculture/gardens, cattle or chickens, crafts, …) and then she will work to train the priests to help the congregations implement that dream.

The Minnesotan Episcopalians want to “walk alongside” their Cubano sisters and brothers, assisting where needed. Do they need computers? If so, is there IT help when needed when the computer laptop crashes? Is there enough infrastructure in the far away eastern end of the island for good internet/broadband service? (We learned later that the government doesn’t allow Cubans to surf the net, just get email – and often without any attachments.)

The bishop explains one of her priorities is getting money to pay for transporting priests and key laypersons to a central gathering place to learn from each other. Santiago de Cuba, a parish on the eastern end of the island is a 14-hour bus ride from the capital city although only a one-hour plane ride which costs considerably more.
Should the folks at St. Mark’s in Minneapolis try to raise the $8-15,000 CUCs it would take to buy a car for the bishop to use – if they could find one in Cuba for a fair price? Many of the newer cars on the street are made in China, Korea, or Europe. Most of the buses in Havana are made in China we have been told.

If only there was the political will and courage in the US to lift the damn embargo! The Cuban people we meet are warm and hospitable – they are not our adversaries. Why can’t the political elites left the people enjoy the ability to share with each other across the boundaries of nation and language? This is clearly a peacemaking and justice issue to add to an already long list that our leaders must confront – and soon!

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