The Cuban Journal

Cuba, Dec. 8, 2008. Image via Wylio:
Cuba, Dec. 8, 2008. Image via Wylio:

EDITOR'S NOTE: Earlier this month, Sojourners board member and former General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, journeyed to Cuba with a delegation of religious leaders from the National Council of Churches. Their visit culminated in a joint declaration celebrating signs of unity between the U.S. and Cuban churches. Sixteen representatives of U.S. National Council of Churches member communions were in Cuba November 28 through December 2 meeting with Cuban church and political leaders, including President Raúl Castro. The delegation, which Cuban church leaders said was the highest ranking U.S. church group to visit the island in their memory, was led by the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, NCC general secretary. The joint statement by the churches declared that normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba would be in the best interest of both nations, and the leaders called for the resolution of three humanitarian issues “which cause unjustifiable human misunderstanding and suffering.” Foremost among the issues is the 53-year-old U.S. economic embargo of Cuba that dates back to the administration of President John F. Kennedy. Read more HERE.

Below is a series of dispatches Granberg-Michaelson sent Sojourners during his Cuban visit.  


November 29, 2011: The School of Medicine  

Opportunities for exchange with U.S. citizens are slowly growing. Visits for religious and other purposes, like our trip, are possible once you learn the procedures. And then there are the U.S. students I met today who are studying at the Latin American School of Medicine, outside of Havana, to become doctors. Back in the U.S.

This was one of the trip’s first real surprises on day one. Begun in 1998 with 983 students from Cuba and from other Latin American countries, this medical school now admits 1,500 per year, coming from 93 countries. 10,000 have graduated. In the reception area where our delegation arrived, accompanied by the Cuban press corps, maps on the walls show the counties were these students are now serving, mostly in Latin America. But also, 119 have or now are attending from the U.S., and 67 have graduated.

I talked with Heather, a student from Georgia. She graduated from college, and also served on one of the “Mercy Ships”—hospital ships serving populations in coastal areas of Africa as a Christian mission. She was attracted to do six years of medical studies here in Cuba. And when she finishes and becomes a doctor? She’d like to do some kind of medical mission work, perhaps in Africa. She attends a Methodist church here in Cuba.

The Director of the school stressed how they try to teach medicine within the values of human solidarity, justice, and ethics. It’s service to humanity. Cuban doctors are known throughout Latin America as one of the country’s best exports. After the earthquake in Haiti, 300 graduates of the Latin American School of Medicine went there for a period of time to serve.

Costs for tuition, books, board and supplies are basically free, paid for by the Cuban government. Heather won’t have to worry about huge student loans to pay off. So she’ll be free to practice medicine as a mission from the start of her career.

A majority of the Latin American School of Medicine graduates serve throughout Cuba. Health care here, by all accounts, is among the best in all of Latin America and much of the global South. Of course it’s still beset with a variety of practical problems. But average life expectancy in Cuba—78.8 years—is much longer than elsewhere in similar settings, and about equal to the U.S.

So I wondered why it takes a secular, socialist government to establish a medical school that stresses the humanitarian service of human need as its goal and financially supports qualified students called to serve in this way. Shouldn’t that be a calling of Christian higher education? A medical school paying all the costs of students committed to spend their careers serving the poor? Why not raise money for that kind of vision instead of bigger gyms and football stadiums?


November 30, 2011: The churches in Cuba seem to be thriving

The churches in Cuba seem to be thriving. Cuban religious life is finding new vitality. Pentecostal and evangelical churches are growing in number, and more charismatic styles of worship are influencing mainline churches. Ecumenical structures, often an ironic part of church division, are searching for new expressions of vitality in this changing religious landscape.

Last evening we went in small groups to various churches related to our own denominations; at our morning prayers in the hotel lobby, we shared our experiences. The Methodists in Cuba have the goal of establishing a “preaching station” in every community in the country, and they report being 85% toward their goal. Their worship has become more Pentecostal in style. Pastoral leadership is raised up locally, often without much training. It sounded to me like the story of Methodism on the American frontier in the 19th Century.

Tensions with the established Methodist seminary seem severe, with the denomination withdrawing support. And there are worries about those who are pastors of new congregations with so little ministerial formation. It’s a classic conflict in Protestantism, of course, experienced in our American denominations, but being played out dramatically at least in this case in the Cuban context.

Even the Orthodox Church is growing in Cuba. A previous Greek Orthodox Church in Havana withered away after the revolution, and its building became a children’s theater. But in 2005, the government responded to a request supported by the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul to build a new church in Havana. At the time, there were four baptized Orthodox in Cuba, and one priest.

We visited the small but beautiful cathedral in downtown Havana, and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop for Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean and Cuba was with us. Today, he told us, there are 1500 Orthodox families in this church, and Orthodox missions have been started in 5 other cities in Cuba. Young people come, searching for a deep spirituality. The Archbishop, who grew up in Chicago, said when asked that Cuba is “absolutely open to religious freedom.” He also shared that there are now 525,000 Orthodox in his whole archdiocese. Almost 500,000 are in Guatemala, and 90% of those are Mayan, indigenous people. All this is a miracle, he said, a work of the Holy Spirit in just the past decade.

I dropped by a retreat for younger Protestant pastors from churches around Cuba, being facilitated by the Cuban Council of Churches. What moved me was their heartfelt, joyous singing as they sat in a circle, with one playing a guitar.

At the William Carey Baptist Church, near downtown Havana, I noticed the Cuban flag on one side at the front of the church, and the Christian flag on the other. I’ve always been against American flags at the front of U.S. churches; I think it simply confuses our allegiance. We were in the William Carey church to listen to three wives and a daughter of the “Cuban Five,” a group of Cubans held prisoners in the United States. It’s a whole story that should be known to Americans, but generally is not.

But the flag reminded me of the fundamental tension: when do we as churches collaborate with and support the government, and when do we stand apart in prophetic witness? Its question that, in my view, the American churches have a hard time getting right. We’ve got too many flags near our pulpits. But, in a radically different context, it’s a question also faced by the Cuban churches.

From what I gather in this very brief time, churches here experience divisions over how closely they should work with the Cuban government in a range of ongoing initiatives, begun by the revolution, to build a more just society, or how much they should keep to themselves. In some respects this also reflects the familiar division between “fundamentalists,” who seek to focus only on individual spiritual renewal to the neglect of God’s love for the world, and those Christians who believe the Bible calls us to work for the transformation of society according to God’s desires for justice. For example, the Christian Reformed Church in Cuba has recently withdrawn from the Cuban Council of Churches, and I think issues of how the church should relate to the government have been partly involved.

It’s up to the Cuban Christians to figure out their answers to these questions in their exciting, challenging and changing context. But these things seem clear. The churches are thriving in Cuba with spiritual empowerment and a strong social presence. Further, exchanges like ours are all too rare, and can only be mutually beneficial for the witness and unity of the Body of Christ.

We were told that this is the highest level of church officials that have ever visited Cuba since the revolution. Apart from the Pope’s visit, of course (and apparently another one is being planned), there has not been a visit with this many leaders of Protestant and Orthodox churches. I hope it will make some difference.


December 1, 2011: The cars fascinate me

The cars continue to fascinate me. Our guide said there are four generations of cars in Cuba. First are the pre-revolutionary American cars. These are the vintage Chevys, Fords, Oldsmobiles, Studebakers, and others from the 1950’s.  Then came the Russian made Ladas, the small, square compacts that look like Fiats stripped of any Italian design.

By the 70’s and 80’s, Japanese and Asian cars started trickling into Cuba, and became the auto of choice after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then, in the last decade, the more expensive European cars began showing up, like Audis. And the modern, comfortable tourist bus our delegation rides in was made in China; there’s a fleet of these shuttling around the 2 million tourists now annually visiting the island.

The cars, of course, reflect the stages of Cuba’s economic relationship with the outside world: the embargo from the U.S., its initial reliance on all things Russian, then growing global trade, followed by the influx of European tourists, and the recent economic resurgence of the Chinese.

Cars can now be bought and sold by Cubans.  I saw a place selling the new Korean-made Hyundai, like the one I own. This is one part of the dramatically new economic policies being instituted in Cuba. But prices for cars—new and used—are unthinkable for most of the island’s 11 million people.

Cars aren’t the only things that can be bought and sold with prices determined by the market. We met with Dr. Oswald Martinez, Director of Cuba’s Center for the Study of World Economy. He also works closely with the Cuban Parliament’s committee on economic policy. He gave us a seminar on Cuba’s sweeping economic changes now being implemented. Many were only approved by Parliament last April.

Martinez called it “shock” therapy, like that being experienced by Greece, Spain, and many countries. The Cuban economic model, he explained, can no longer be idolized. Like every discussion of Cuba’s economy, the “blockade” is cited, and Martinez estimates its cumulative cost to the Cuban economy at about $104 billion. But Martinez says that the blockade shouldn’t be used as a justification of its own home-made economic mistakes. And he cited plenty.

Salaries have been increasing faster than productivity. Foods are being imported that could be produced domestically, but weren’t because of the inefficiencies of centralized, Soviet-style agriculture.  There’s been an “exaggerated number of state employees’”—20 people working where only 10 were needed, encouraged by an attitude of “paternalism.” At times Martinez was nearly sounding like a Republican. Massive layoffs of state employees have been occurring.

This has been accompanied by enlarging, and legalizing “self-employment.” People can employ themselves as carpenters, plumbers, masons, shoe repairers, taxi drivers, and food vendors—in all there are about 200 such possibilities, now with 300,000 self-employed people, and growing all the time. Further, small businesses can be started. The government now provides credit and loans.

Walking down the street to the William Carey church, we saw small shops in the front courtyards of row houses selling pizza, snacks, ice cream, and lunch sandwiches. More restaurants are opening. Away from the cities, parcels of unused agricultural land are now being given, rent free, to small producers, reminiscent of the American practices that opened the West to farming. Those small farmers can sell directly to the tourist hotels.

Next year a tax policy—unknown previously to most Cubans—will go into place. Policies and a “culture” promoting conservation in electricity, fuel, and materials are being adopted. All these are major changes, now being adopted, implemented, and accelerated, in Cuba’s socialist economic system.

At the same time, Martinez made clear that Cuba’s socialist model was not being abandoned; it was being reformed. The impressive gains made in human development—the elimination of illiteracy, accessible and free education for all, free medical care that touches every citizen, a system of social security—will always be safeguarded. What we would call the “social safety net” is sacrosanct here, protecting all Cubans, even in the midst of the dislocation experienced by some from these economic reforms.

I told Dr. Martinez that I wished our politicians in Washington could hear his talk. It would dispel many of the myths held about Cuba remaining from the scars of the past. But it might also demonstrate how tough economic choices today demand a pragmatism that sets aside rigid ideology and focuses on solutions that serve the common good. That’s a lesson which, at present, Washington’s politicians seem unable to learn.


December 2, 2011: We want to play ball

“We want to play ball…. but the U. S. keeps moving the goalposts.”  That’s how the head of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry office for the North America described their years of frustration in seeking normal relations with the United States. It took four years of negotiations just to get the Baltimore Orioles baseball team to play an exhibition game in Havana a decade ago, and even that almost broke down over last minute demands from the State Department.

The embargo on commercial, financial, and trading relationships between the U.S. and Cuba—presently carried out through the Helms-Burton act of Congress—has been in place in various ways for 53 years, making it the longest lasting trade embargo in history.  When our delegation met with John Caulfield, head of the U.S. Interests Office in Havana, I reminded him that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” For over five decades, our policy of trying to economically and diplomatically isolate Cuba has not achieved its goal of changing the regime to our liking. Instead, it has economically and diplomatically isolated the U. S. The last vote of the U. N. General Assembly—one of 20 over the years—calling for the lifting of the embargo had 186 nations voting in favor and 2—the United States and Israel—voting against. And the buses, cars, computers, and so much else that Cuba is buying are coming from China, Japan, Korea, and Europe, instead of creating jobs in Michigan, Ohio, and Florida.

The Cubans say that in the 70’s, the U.S. complaint was that they had troops in Africa. Now they don’t. In the 80’s, the U.S. charged that Cuba was aiding liberation movements in Latin America, serving as an outpost of the Soviet Union. Both are now non-existent. Then the U. S. maintained that Cuba had to institute economic reforms. Now they are. But the goalposts always move.

Mr. Caulfield is a U.S. career diplomat who began serving in Latin America under President Carter and basically is like our Ambassador to Cuba, but can’t be called one because we don’t have diplomatic relations. He explained, in a hospitable and helpful meeting held in the open-air inner courtyard of our non-embassy by the ocean in Havana, that the problem is Cuba’s one-party political system. Freedom of expression and association, and the organizing of political parties and other parts of civil society as we know it modern democracies, doesn’t exist. Yet, even that assessment was diplomatically qualified. Cubans do feel freer to express their views these days, at least in safe places.

Cuba seems alive with the discussion of new ideas and possibilities these days. But it’s within their model of a political process, and not the one non-Ambassador Caulfield would prefer, as the faithful representative of U. S. policy. But at some point, the U. S. has to grant Cuba the respect and right to work out their own political and economic solutions to their nation’s destiny.

President Obama did initiate some changes—fewer than most Cubans and many Americans had hoped for, but small, fresh departures from the frozen past. Allowing Cuban American to visit their relatives in Cuba, beginning last January, was probably the most important. Mr. Caulfield says that 500,000 Americans will come to Cuba this year—a dramatic change. 400,000 of these will be Cuban American. Others will come for a wide number of reasons through special exceptions in the regulations banning travel. But none will come (officially) for tourism, which is still not allowed for U.S. citizens.

Further, Cubans can now send remittances to their relatives. Caulfield estimates this will result in a transfer of nearly $2 billion dollars this year, affecting up to 25% of Cuban families. While our Cuban church friends who follow these matters argue with some of the numbers, it’s a change that is felt directly by Cubans.

Much more could happen, however, if there was political will. Cooperation together on drug interdiction, scientific exchanges, medical equipment, weather forecasting and disaster response could be undertaken. Modest steps like these could be taken even while the political debate over normalization waits until Florida casts its electoral votes in 2012. We could even play ball again.


December 3, 2011: Cuba is changing

Cuba is changing. All seem to agree. The question is how those changes will shape the future of this island.

Economically, Cuba has embarked on a journey of reform not widely known and appreciated within the United States. We drove past the downtown covered market—the Mercado—by the train station. It was part of my “drive by sighting” of the city of Havana in the midst of non-stop meetings. But the market was filled with those selling goods directly from their farms or enterprises, with prices determined by the market.

State stores selling food at fixed prices continue in a parallel system. But Cubans say that the quality of what you get at the market is better, even if the price is slightly higher. You go there, for instance, if you want to buy food for a special dinner. These changes will only accelerate; the official plan is for this unplanned part of the economy to grow and blossom.

Political reforms, at least as we define those, will come more slowly than economic liberalization. The achievements of Cuba’s revolution in the last half century, in terms of education, health, and social livelihood, are widely embraced. If the present regime were ever to have fallen, it would have been after the collapse of the Soviet Union, eliminating 80% of Cuba’s foreign trade and creating a 30% drop in its economy, similar to the U.S. Great Depression. The U.S. response was to tighten the embargo even further. But I think the degree of political consensus around preserving the social gains of the system had as much to do with the government’s survival in that critical period as any other factor.

The U.S. and the European Union have constantly raised the issue of political prisoners in Cuba. An announcement by Cuba to release 52 political prisoners, brokered by the Vatican and the government of Spain, led Amnesty International to say that would leave only one political prisoner of conscience left in Cuba’s jails. The independent but tolerated Commission on Human Rights in Cuba puts that number at 167. Obviously it depends on definitions, but all seem to agree that however defined; such prisoners are at the lowest level ever since the 1959 revolution. The Foreign Ministry told us it has even asked the U.S. and others to give them a list of those alleged to remain as political prisoners, asking for a serious dialogue.

So changes will come. But don’t expect a Tahrir Square to happen here. Cuba’s future political changes will be evolutionary, not revolutionary.


Last Thoughts: “What would faith in Jesus Christ have us do?”

When Vice-President Estaban Lazo sat down at the table where our delegation, and friends from the Cuban Council of Churches, had gathered, he began by turning to a Cuban pastor seated next to him and said, “What is the gospel?” This was, by far, the most interesting start to a meeting with a high government official that I had ever experienced.

The pastor responded, “Faith in Jesus Christ.” Lazo continued his interrogation. “And what would faith in Jesus Christ have us do?”

“Love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.”

So then, shouldn’t this faith in Christ cause us to respect others, Lazo asked.

Shouldn’t those who have faith focus on those things that unite us? Isn’t that why ecumenism is important?

The Cuban Vice-President then went on to list the areas of crisis facing the world:

The economic crisis—who are most affected? The underprivileged.

The food crisis—7 billion people in the world, and 1.2 billion facing hunger or starvation.

The energy crisis—those who are poorest suffer from the lack of energy.

The climate change crisis—the effects are on the most vulnerable, experiencing the increasing intensity of hurricanes, etc., including in Cuba.

Wars and military weapons—money spent here instead of on human needs. President Eisenhower warned about this. People become wealthy producing weapons. But God doesn’t ask us to produce these.

Technologies are not used for the welfare of human being.

And then the water crisis.

Further, who can deny that we face an ethical crisis?

So, Lazo continued, we say we are following the gospel. Shouldn’t that mean we are thinking about the welfare of fellow human beings? Shouldn’t that be the challenge for us?

As I listened, I thought of how similar Vice-President Lazo’s impromptu list was to the 15 challenges that the church must face, presented by biblical scholar N.T. Wright at the Inaugural Conference of the Newbigin House of Studies, in San Francisco, two weeks earlier.

These are the questions that the world is asking of the church. And it’s particularly appropriate to listen to these questions deeply in Advent, when we hear the promise:“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

It’s right for the Vice-President of Cuba, and anyone, to ask whether the message of the Gospel brings the hope of God’s justice to break into the world, and compels followers of Jesus to work for such a future. Any version of the Gospel that doesn’t embrace that biblical challenge doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

Flying home from Cuba, I was prepared for Advent.


Wesley Granberg-Michaelson is former General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America and author of the book Unexpected Destinations.


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