President Obama announced last week that the United States and Cuba are moving toward normalizing their relationship. I may have the world’s strangest set of credentials to comment on this. I have been there twice, both times legally. I have visited Cuban schools and talked to the students. I have presented on Cuba at professional conferences, universities, and to church groups. I was doing research in Havana on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution (nothing interesting happened).
I have seen Fidel Castro speak in person. I sat there in the back of the Karl Marx Theater, my passport exchanged temporarily for a translation device, listening…listening….and listening. The man is legendary for his long-windedness. He spoke for four hours and twenty minutes. People from his retinue left the stage to use the restroom during the speech. Smart people in the audience brought snacks. I was not one of them.
In those hours he said something the to the effect of “Cuba is awesome; We’ve done some cool stuff since 1959.” And they have. Leave out his glaring problems for a moment and there are pieces of the Cuban experience that just make you step back and say “Wow!” This is a Third World country with a 99% literacy rate. That’s pretty fucking incredible. They have the best health care in the region, which is freely available to all citizens. It’s a highly educated, multilingual society that loans their doctors to other countries. Granted, they often get some payback in the form of food, money, or oil, but that’s life in the big city. Nothing comes for free.
Havana is not what romantic American dreams say it is. Yes, there are 1950’s American cars on the roads, but few are left. The classic cars that still work properly are used as public transportation. You are far more likely to see a Chinese, Japanese, or Soviet vehicle on the streets than an 1955 Chevy. Yes, the Copacabana is still there, but it’s falling apart, just like everything in Havana. Yes, a walk along the Malecón is beautiful, especially when the tide is high and the waves crash over the seawall and out onto the street, but it too is crumbling. Much like the people of Cuba, who persevere yet crumble under the U.S. embargo that keeps essential supplies away from the island, the island’s infrastructure appears to have very little steam left.
It’s not a fantasy vision of the 50’s. It’s not a Vegas-style lair of gambling and showgirls. It’s not a smoke-filled room crowded with evil communists. It’s a real island populated by 11 million people who are very well educated. They are guaranteed what they need to survive, but little else. Buildings, sidewalks, and plumbing are falling apart. Toilet paper is rationed. In one public restroom a man guarded the only available roll, loaning it to whichever man or woman needed it. The Cuban people must innovate, both on an illegal individual scale and on an officially sanctioned societal scale, just to survive. Innovation and pluralism marks the Cuban society, and the rest of us could learn a lot from that.
There is greater spirit of religious pluralism in Cuba than here in the United States. The country is officially atheistic, but religions are freely practiced by its people. Practitioners of indigenous religions live beside devout Catholics, who attend services in beautiful but dilapidated churches. The Church serves its people, helping them find spiritual peace and physical comfort despite their inability to tithe – just the way Jesus would have wanted it.
New Santerians proudly don their white clothes and walk beside Voodoo practitioners, and magic is considered a fact. Other syncretic and African diasporic faiths add to the rich spiritual diversity, but there is also a large Jewish population. On Callejon de Hamel, an artist has beautified his neighborhood with colorful depictions of the Orishas, Santerian imagery, and patriotic Cuban symbols. Every Wednesday afternoon they hold a public salsa dance.
Cuba’s spiritual alchemy offers a metaphor for the reintegration of our two societies. We don’t have to agree. We don’t even have to like each other. But we can listen to each other. We can find the beautiful wisdom in someone else’s worldview and incorporate it into ours, just as so many of the diasporic faiths incorporated the Catholic saints into their pantheons. We can love without agreeing, just as a the island’s atheist majority is happy to offer housing and free healthcare to the Catholic population. We can love our neighbor and exchange ideas just as the Cuban people have been doing with each other for centuries. And certainly, we can advocate our own way of life without intentionally starving others.
Over a half-century of embargo has forced Cuba to implement sustainable agriculture and resource management. Almost every home has a rain catching device on the roof. Back in World War II, Americans were encouraged to grow “victory gardens” to sustain their families against the rationing forced by the war. These kinds of personal vegetable gardens flourish all over the island.
To supplement their personal growing, organic farming has become a specialty of Cuban agriculture. They don’t have access to the pesticides and fertilizers our farmers have, so they have embraced the organic movement, doing all they can to feed their people from within their own borders, minimizing the oil consumption and pollution caused by long distance delivery. Farmland is limited on any island, and it’s hard to feed 11 million people with victory gardens and small, local organic farms, but we can learn a lot about sustainability and self sufficiency from Cuba.
The very idea of homelessness explodes the mind of a Cuban. One person incredulously asked if it was true that there are people without homes in America. How, he asked, could such a wealthy country allow its people to live without homes? Many Cubans see through the socialist propaganda, but they just don’t comprehend how we who have so much could allow our countrymen to needlessly suffer. I wasn’t sure how to answer. Whatever your political views, over 50 years of seeing your neighbor as a brother or sister has brought a deep sense of kindness to the Cuban people. We can learn from their compassion.
Modern Cubans radiate a love of humanity. My first experience with a Cuban citizen was at the Cancun airport. On the tarmac, my plane’s pilot lovingly draped his arm around one of his (male) crew members. There was a sense of mutual affection and comradery that I have seen play itself out multiple times on the island.
During my first trip, I wanted to ride in one of the classic 50’s cars that run public transportation routes around Havana. I wedged myself in between a couple locals somewhere in the western portion of the city and verified that the car would take me to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Old Havana, the original Spanish colonial city. I was in for a shock when I was dropped off.
Cuba has a complicated economy. Tourists and locals use different money. Tourist money, at the the time, was around 26 times more valuable than local currency. My fare was six local pesos, the equivalent of about 1/7 of a dollar. All I had to give was five tourist pesos, which was well beyond 100 times the fare requested. The driver wouldn’t take it. Another passenger paid my fare in local currency, spending a significant portion of his weekly income to help me out of my awkward situation. He wouldn’t accept my offers of tourist peso reimbursement, which amounted to a sum that was many times his monthly income.
These are good, generous people who deserve more than the privation of moldy U.S. policy that was born during the Kennedy administration. The world is a very different place in 2014.
Normalization of our relationship will be good for both countries. For Cuba, it will allow trade, tourism, and an influx of cash. This will only help Cuba’s citizens. History over the years has shown that when the island has more, the people get more. You don’t have to like socialism, but Cuba has a track record of actually implementing it tenets. When times are good, the people have more. When they are bad, the people starve.
Times have been on a downturn since Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, a supporter of the Cuban revolution, died. It was worse after the fall of the Soviet Union, but it’s pretty low right now. In 2008, while Chavez was still helping out the Castros, the best thing I could get for dinner in central Havana was garbanzo beans with ketchup. I hate garbanzo beans.
For the U.S., which is so concerned about not capitulating to a dictatorship, normalization removes what Hillary Clinton called Cuba’s “foil.” For 55 years, the Castros have blamed all of their problems on the U.S. embargo. It gives them a boogeyman to blame. If the embargo were to end, that boogeyman would no longer exist. Any continuing deprivation, then, could only be blamed on the economic system. It would expose any cracks in the system. If the economy continues to fail, it could potentially bring down the Castro regime. Even Rand Paul admits it’s time to go beyond old, stale policies and try something new with Cuba.
As Pagans, we know what it means to me misunderstood and vilified. Both countries have been doing that to each other for 55 years. Born in 1959, the history of socialist Cuba has paralleled the growth of the modern Pagan movement. Pagans have made their missteps along the way, but so has every other religion. Castro’s Cuba has hurt a lot of people, but then so has the U.S. in its long blockade against the country. In the modern Pagan movement, we often talk about experiencing the gods rather than blindly worshiping them. Let’s allow the Cuban people to do the same. With an experience of the U.S. that goes beyond their government’s caricatures, they may eventually be able to make their own educated choices. Plus they’ll be eating again. They deserve the same access to ideas and choices that we have made for ourselves.
Hidden within a church’s botanical garden in Old Havana is a sculpture so modern it’s hard to believe that it’s in Cuba. It’s called the “Table of Silence.” It depicts a family sitting together at a table, but they are so wrapped up in their business that they don’t even notice each other. The father reads the newspaper while the mother paints her toenails. Their daughter bends over a handheld video game, although these days that could just as well be a smart phone she’s obsessed with. The family doesn’t communicate. They don’t see the damage they are doing to each other. They blindly ignore each other and miss out on everything in each other’s lives.
The message is clear: silence is just as damaging as violence. It tears apart a family it its own quiet, seemingly innocent way. It accomplishes nothing and is counterproductive to any relationship.
The U.S. and Cuba have been sitting at the Table of Silence together for far too long. As in the statue, that silence only gets more and more destructive to our relationship. Our old policy has not worked. It will not work. We need to move away from the politics of obstinacy and petty revenge toward a new policy of love for and discussion with the 11 million people who call Cuba their home. It’s not about punishing two elderly brothers; it’s about an entire population of kind, loving, needy people. On this solstice day, let’s change course and work toward a brighter future for both countries.