Boatswain’s Log. . December 8th.
Well, I am currently sitting in a compound outside of central San Jose with the 20ish other Latin American Studies Concentration folks. The people who went to Cuba. You want to know about it don’t you…well, this is my stab at telling you about the island nation of Cuba without diving into everyday details that would take too long to convey.
We got into Habana latish at night and were picked up in a yellow school bus by 3 cuban men whom we got to know well named Ariel, Alejandro, and Alberto. The trip through customs was interesting. From the first moment that people knew where we were from it was as though there was a running joke going on with the punch line of “There are people from the USA here…tee hee.” In any case we boarded the yellow bus and embarked on our journey surrounded by a surreal world of cars from the 1950’s that are still to this day kept running because of the transferable capital they represent. The cars made prior to 1959 are the only cars that the Cubans themselves are able to sell and buy without making the government either the seller or buyer.
We stayed at a place called the martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center. The people there are very interested in doing ecumenical work and sponsor groups from the US on a regular basis. The cooked 95% of our meals and fed us typical Cuban fare. It took some getting used to, especially after our group leader Javier told us that every time we asked for more food besides what was put out we were taking food from someone else. Let’s say that it took some getting used to for a 6 foot six 250 pound man. I adapted over time. What do Cubans eat you ask? To answer that I will need a new paragraph.
Cuban food is very similar to the rest of Latin America. They eat rice, beans, bread, citrus fruit, and fish and whatnot. The difference however, is 2-fold. The first part is that Cuba was hit recently by 3 hurricanes. Right in the agricultural sector. That means that fruit and vegetables were very hard to come by. The second part of that is that Cubans eat in most circumstances by using something called the ration. Obviously, since they live in a socialist society the government has made certain guarantees to the population. Free education for everyone that is the best in Latin America, free healthcare for everyone (gender changes, heart surgery, and whatever else), subsidized housing, and a certain degree of food. A Cuban family receives a portion that varies with the size and age of the family in many foods once a month. Every Cuban is entitled to a piece of bread every single day. No matter what. Otherwise they are given a set amount of rice, cooking oil, salt, beans, etc… every month. (Kids under 7 get a liter of milk a day for free) Based on what the Cubans have to say this food lasts for about 10 days or so. The rest of the 20 days they can buy food from the ration store or “bodega” for a very small price in Cuban pesos. This isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Cubans have a system of 2 currencies. There is the Cuban peso and the CUC (1.20 dollars is one CUC). CUC is for foreigners. Background: Cuba relied on the USSR for financial support and a source for about 75% of their exports until its collapse in the early 90’s. Thus through the embargo and the collapse of the USSR Cuba entered economic freefall, they needed to get money back faster. So they made a new currency that would let them get hard currency faster than converting pesos into other things. 24 cuban pesos is one CUC, one CUC is 1.20 dollars, thus 1 cuban peso is almost worthless, and yet a Cuban can buy a pound of rice for about 4 cuban pesos. Cubans get paid about 10ish CUC a month for whatever job they get from the government a doctor gets paid about 20$ a month in Cuba, but they do their job because they want to help people.
So, with their money not being worth a lot, their other bills, and buying food for their families, Cubans have a rough experience. It is hard for them to make ends meet, even with many Cubans receiving money from family in Miami it is really hard. However, if you work in the tourist center and get tips in CUC you can live really well (better than a doctor, think about the conversion rate and what food costs). Thus in a socialist society that was meant to be without class distinction there are indeed class distinctions. Despite an economy meant to get rid of poverty and hunger, both still exist. Furthermore the education system seems to be working out not as well due to a shortage of teachers. People who are 18 or so are having to be emergency professors for kids. I dunno about you, but I wouldn’t like that for my kids.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I may be talking about the negative aspects of Cuba and there are more that I could go into (lack of civil liberties for one thing. One party, not much room for freedom of expression or speech in a more public manner) There are lots and lots of things that Cubans do well that we in the US do not do well. We don’t have a healthcare system that covers every citizen (admittedly on an island with 12 million it would be easier to accomplish this), we don’t provide food to every citizen each month, and our education system consistently fails the inner city children due to a lack of property taxes. I will not say that Cuba is perfect, we do other things well that they don’t. I guess what I want to convey is that Cuban reality is not a paradise as some would argue, but neither is it hell. It is leaning more towards the paradise side.
Enough about economics. Let me tell you some stories.
Cubans are the only Latin American people who made me feel like I was at home right away. The moment you talk to a Cuban and they find out who you are they want to talk to you. They treat you like you belong, and don’t make you feel like a rich gringo or anything along those lines (at least on the road called the Malecon where the youngfolk hung out alongside the carribean). Honestly, I partly came to Latin America looking for a place that felt like home. A place where I belonged and felt loved. I think Cuba was that place.
Ariel was an amazing man. He had an incredible perspective. When we asked him what he wanted us to say about him he asked that we tell people that Cubans are human beings. They suffer when there are shortages of certain foods, when the Cuban government is “punished” the Cuban people are really the ones to suffer. They are the ones who have to run to catch a bus that is overly full because of a lack of fuel to run buses. They are the ones who wait in line to receive food. That man truly made me feel like a brother. He was very honest in response to every question and I would count him a friend and brother in the Lord.
Alberto was our translator. He was incredible. Really. He speaks English so very well. He makes hilarious stories that I couldn’t understand so much of the time and in general is just a great guy. This is a guy to whom Cuba is great. It is home. When he leaves he misses it. It isn’t brain washing. Cubans have a great community environment. This concept of being at home through the manner in which the people interact is truly what I saw there. Alberto has had multiple chances to leave Cuba while in the US interpreting, but has come back every time. The man complimented my Spanish. That was a high compliment.
That is something you should know. Cubans like Cuba. They know it isn’t perfect. No one there will say that on the street. Maybe the government will, but the people know what is up. Even so, like I said they want to live there. They like their country and want it to be changed within their own context. (i.e. not with a US implemented solution) They are people who know how to love their country and be critical of it at the same time.
Change of topic. There are a lot of people who practice Santeria in Cuba. Basically, worshipping fake African idols. About 70% of Cubans are supposed to be sincretic worshippers in religion. That means they do just about everything just in case. This was my first experience with pagan religion that people actually believe in. The church in Cuba on the large part (according to my sources) feels like these religions are evil, idolatrous, and false. I don’t disagree. I wish there were a more culturally sensitive way to say it, but I don’t know one. I have to be real about what I know about God. There aren’t any other Gods. Sorry.
That was a hard context to experience this in, especially because so many Cubans are in this pluralist mindset. I don’t share that with them, but it was very easy and tempting to jump on board with so few perspectives pointing other ways. I didn’t though. No worries, but in the context of Cuba I did experience large challenges.
One of them was my own fault. I came in idealizing Cuba, and it wasn’t until I realized that it had faults that I could begin to think about it as a real place instead of a perfect land. A large focus of my education and Christian upbringing has been social justice in the context of a government that mostly spends money on guns. The Cuban government spends money on its people, and they have lots of basic necessities like food, healthcare, and education, jobs, etc. As a result being a Christian in Cuba looks different in the things that they have to remind their brother to be conscious of. I think they have more problems with false gods competing for the worship of the one true God, but their society focuses on social justice and solidarity anyway. We on the other hand have false gods in the form of success, money, and “the American dream” and our society seems to on the whole forget that the poor number about 40 million in the US. Over 3 times the population of Cuba.
Following Christ is a lot more than just a movement towards social justice though. I think that this idea has been proposed by many people here abouts, however…Where does this play into the fact that Christ died on the cross as a choice rather than solve the economic problems of the world? He could have fed all the poor, changed the government, and done other things as well, but instead died and reconciled us to God. That means that our focus as well should find its foundation in the unseen as well as that which is seen. How does that look in real life? I will have to tell you later when I figure it out.
One thing that really hit me when I was in Cuba is that Alberto told me I had a big heart. People say that to me often wherever I go. What does it mean? I try to love people, but what does a big heart convey in their minds? I am not sure that I understand. Let me know if you know.
I gave Alberto and Ariel my address in Bellingham and told them if they got the chance to visit that my door was open to them to stay at the house. That was just a quick summary. I could have talked about lots of things. Ask me sometime about my thoughts on the embargo, the Habana psychiatric Hospital, or the glorious beach called Varadero. I will end with a Haiku:
Cuba is a place,
Filled with caring people who,
Lack much but love lots.