Man standing in Cuban street with US flag on shirt
In Havana, life goes on as the diplomatic talks with Washington continue (Photo: Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Topics: Ethical Living | Society

Cuba and the U. S. are resuming relations — and it’s complicated

The island has been under economic blockade for more than 50 years by its powerful neighbour


It’s 7 a.m., but I have been awake since six, when the rooster outside my window made its presence known for the second time since midnight. This was followed by the sound of the bread vendor calling out in a singsong voice, “Pan suave, pan suave,” as he made his way down the pre-dawn street.

It’s blissfully warm and green on this Cuban February morning. As I walk down the hill from the Matanzas Evangelical Seminary of Theology toward the city, the streets are alive with people. They are walking to work or taking their children to school. Teenagers in school uniforms gather at street corners, while the buses and trucks are crammed with passengers. The ubiquitous 1950s cars weave their way around the potholes, mixed in with motorcycle taxis and the occasional modern Korean car.

I stop at one of the small enterprises that have sprung up all over Cuba: from the front of her house, an older woman brings out small glasses half-filled with very strong, sweet hot coffee. I try to pay more than the asking price; she waves the extra money away. The jolt of caffeine clears the last of the early morning cobwebs, and I head into the centre of Matanzas.

I have come to Cuba as part of an exposure tour with 10 United Church people organized by Rev. Chris Levan, minister of Toronto’s College Street United, who has been bringing people to the island for over 25 years. I am here not only to experience Cuba, but also to talk with church people about the question on everyone’s mind: What will happen to both the church and the country when relations with the United States are normalized?

The answer, as with everything else in Cuba, can be summed up in two words: Es complicado — it’s complicated.

Cuba is indeed a complicated place. It has been under an economic blockade for more than 50 years by the United States, and no one should underestimate its impact on the formation of Cuban society. The embargo has resulted in both determination and exhaustion in equal measure: determination to carve out a Cuban way, and exhaustion with having to do so. It’s not only that the United States won’t trade directly with Cuba, but also that it punishes non-American companies that do, in particular those with subsidiaries that also trade in the United States. This is the reason Cubans can’t access simple things like Tylenol, Aspirin and Ventolin inhalers for asthma. It’s punitive and it’s wicked. The blockade has distorted not only the Cuban economy, but the whole society. Over a million Cubans now live in exile.

“Everyone has something to eat, but they can’t eat what they want,” says Reinerio Arce Valentín, the rector of Matanzas seminary, in a presentation to a delegation from the World Council of Churches that I attended. “Putting food on the table is a challenge.”

The blockade began in 1960 in response to the revolutionary government nationalizing American-owned oil refineries in Cuba — without compensation. Over the years, the blockade increased in scope. Although Cuba is free to trade with other countries (including Canada), it is extraordinarily difficult to create a sustainable financial system when the world’s largest economy sees you as the enemy and labels you a sponsor of terrorism.

In many ways, the blockade is hard to understand, especially when you consider that the United States went to war with North Vietnam at the cost of tens of thousands of American lives, yet has a thriving trading relationship with Vietnam today. What was it about Cuba’s revolution that created such a bitter response?

“The people with wealth fled the country and were very bitter about how they were treated and have never forgiven the [Cuban] government,” says Jim Hodgson, the United Church’s program co-ordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean. However, he points out that exiled Cubans are not a monolith. “There are four groups of political opinion within the exile community,” Hodgson says, “and only one of them is implacably hostile to the Cuban government — and they are dying off. The others want to see an open relationship so they can go home and help their families.”

Cuba’s historic ties to America run deep. In the early 20th century, this relationship was so close that, under the Cuban Constitution, the United States had the right to militarily intervene at its own discretion. Cuba wasn’t an official U.S. protectorate, but was close to it. For that reason, Fidel Castro’s revolution in the 1950s against the U.S.-backed authoritarian government of Cuban president Fulgencio Batista was seen by the United States as almost a personal rejection between families. It has been taken as such ever since.

What does the prospect of renewed ties between the two countries mean to Cubans? An equal mix of anxiety and anticipation.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc in the early 1990s, Cuba lost many of its trading relationships. Called the Período especial, the Special Period, it was a time of extreme wartime-style rationing and economic difficulty that forced a whole generation of Cubans to grow up knowing little but shortages and want. Tens of thousands fled the country; many drowned trying to escape. With so many young people gone, Arce Valentín says, Cubans are now worried about who will care for the elders in the near future.

While things are significantly better today, food is still a challenge. There is a basic ration for all Cubans, including rice, beans, sugar, salt and coffee, plus some meat when available. No one starves in Cuba, but access and variety are a problem. As the government reforms the economy and brings in market-based solutions, there have been layoffs in state industries. The people affected have never before had to look for a job and have little idea how to go about it.

In response to these reforms and the possibility of normal relations with the United States, Arce Valentín believes that the church must respond both theologically and practically. “We need to develop a theology of capitalism that supports democracy,” he asserts. The role of the church is “to begin to set up co-operatives and faith-based enterprises to help people transition into this new world.”

But Cuba lacks basic economic infrastructure to support co-operatives or small enterprises. While some small government loans are available, there is little access to business credit or wholesale markets. One cannot, for example, remortgage a home to invest in an enterprise. Most people can only raise money if it’s sent from family overseas. This functions as an unofficial capital pool, but it is unbalanced to say the least and a highly ineffective way to build a fully mixed economy.

Arce Valentín worries not only about the economic impacts of these changing times, but about Cuba’s sovereignty itself. “[U.S. President Barack] Obama is a nice emperor, but he is still an emperor. We are the hummingbird living beside an elephant, and we don’t want to end up like Puerto Rico and be the next star on the American flag, he says, referring to the recent bid to make Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, into an American state.

This concern for independence is exacerbated by the role that American evangelical churches are already playing in Cuba today. Most clergy in Cuba are paid in the range of US$25 per month, but recently some U.S. evangelical churches have been sending an extra US$100 per month to a group of Cuba’s evangelical pastors. (To do this, a government licence is required.) This income boost not only dramatically improves the pastors’ standard of living, but also allows them to invest the extra money in the church. A newly affluent church is primed and ready to hear the prosperity gospel, which affirms that financial wealth is God’s will for Christians.

“People [in mainline churches] see these [charismatic] churches growing, they hear stories of people being slain in the spirit and they are curious,” explains Rev. Daniel Hernandez, the minister of Iglesia Presbiteriana-Reformada en Luyanó in Havana. “These churches can be quite aggressive in ‘sheep stealing.’”

Hernandez told me of one Pentecostal minister in Havana who began preaching end-times theology, asserting that the end of the world was imminent and Christ would return in judgment. He convinced 60 of his congregants that the only way to survive was by moving into the church, and if they left the building they would be grabbed by the devil. People stayed for three weeks. It was one of the churches receiving funds from U.S. evangelicals, Hernandez says.

This dramatic incident aside, Cuba’s suspicion of churches goes back to pre-revolutionary times, when the Catholic Church was the bastion of the wealthy and powerful. After the revolution, all churches, Protestant or Catholic, were seen to be potentially counter-revolutionary, though this too may be changing: last month, Cuban President Raul Castro, inspired by his meeting with Pope Francis, publicly mused about rejoining the Catholic Church.

As it stands now, Cuban churches are monitored by the Department of Religious Affairs. A regulatory body with offices in every city, the DRA falls under the jurisdiction of the Communist party and not the government.

Indeed, in government legislation, churches are not recognized separately, but rather are lumped in with other voluntary associations from soccer leagues to bird fanciers clubs. While the state accepts churches, it does not allow them to open new buildings or own property other than their pre-revolutionary sites. An explosion of house churches has resulted, with congregations setting up shop in individuals’ homes or in houses that are owned by a third party and donated to the church for use as worship space. Unfortunately, this donation has no legal standing, so congregations are at risk of losing their property if the owner has a change of heart over the donation. Es complicado, to say the least.

It’s late at night and I am sitting outside at an all-night café speaking with Elaine Saralegui and Yivi Cruz Suárez, the founders of SOMOS, a Cuban LGBT group. SOMOS is the only ministry to the queer community in all of Cuba, and it began in the Baptist Church in Matanzas. Saralegui and Cruz Suárez share their story and explain the state’s relationship with the LGBT community. On the one hand, there has been tremendous progress on the government front, with an anti-homophobia day celebrated each year. But the day-to-day story is somewhat different. Saralegui says on a recent night, the police in Matanzas rounded up suspected gay men and jailed them.

A few nights later, I attend an open SOMOS meeting. A small auditorium is filled with people of all ages, and we participate in an exercise to raise awareness about domestic violence using skits and discussions. It’s a powerful experience of community education.

The next day, while walking across the seminary campus, our Canadian group runs into Rev. Adolfo Ham, a retired pastor and seminary professor and a former representative of the Cuban church through the World Council of Churches. When we are introduced to him as a delegation from The United Church of Canada, he smiles and says, “You belong to the best church in the world.” Ham is one of the “revolutionary pastors,” clergy who didn’t flee during the revolution but stayed with their people. At 84, he is enthusiastic about the role that the church can play in Cuban society and doesn’t mince words about his government when we sit down in his son’s home on the campus of Matanzas seminary.

“The original sin of the revolution is that it did not allow us the freedom to criticize,” he tells me. “Criticism was seen as undermining the revolution; this was a mistake.” Ham believes that allowing critique would have strengthened Cuban society. “Church people supported the revolution and were involved in it. We should have been able to shape it as well.”

In all the conversations I had about the Cuban church, what struck me the most was the resonance between its situation and that of The United Church of Canada. The Cuban church has to deal with historic suspicion from both the government and the people, most of whom do not go to church. It’s struggling to find ways to connect to contemporary culture. When Ham says that the Cuban church needs “silence and meditation, liturgy that is updated and a theology that is relevant to the problems of today’s world,” he could be any of a number of United Church leaders.

I felt that same resonance when talking to Hernandez: the outreach programs of his Presbyterian congregation would fit in any church here. They run an after-school program for children, tai chi for seniors, a breakfast program for people with disabilities, English classes, Alcoholics Anonymous and monthly music concerts.

But it was my experience Sunday morning at a Presbyterian church in Matanzas that proved to me that what we have in common far outweighs our differences. The service was in Spanish, and so on one level I understood nothing; on another, I understood everything. The people gathering before worship, the dynamics of the relationships I observed, the struggle with the PowerPoint slides, the challenge of introducing a new piece of music, and watching Rev. Ary Fernandez and Rev. Beidy Casas, the two ministers, working before, during and after church — I felt right at home. We are indeed one church.

But there are differences. No Cuban clergy would dare to preach on the need for free speech or a multi-party democracy, as this would likely attract visits from the authorities and put them at risk of arrest and imprisonment. Clergy also have to walk a fine line when doing community outreach: helping others can be interpreted as criticism of the government for failing to provide a service.

As to the future, Cubans will not give up their sovereignty to the United States in exchange for economic development, not after all they have experienced. They will preserve universal health care and education, cornerstones of their society. It will take time to find a Cuban way forward, and there are many complex issues to be resolved before relations between the two countries are fully restored. But change is coming, and some of the outcomes will be unpredictable. Es complicado.


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s June 2015 issue with the title “Es complicado.”


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