Friday, August 14, 2015

Cuba - Let's Learn While We Still Can

"The Great Turning"
Challenge yourself to imagine:

"It is the year 2275. 500 years after the birth of the social experiment in 1776
known as the United States of America, and I can assure you - life is good.  The Great Turning,
as depicted by Joanna Macy, has actually happened: we humans have learned to thrive without
utterly destroying ourselves or our precious habitat. God’s longstanding desire to make 'earth as
it is in heaven' is coming closer to reality, thanks to an amazing collaboration between spirit, earth, and humanity. From 2275, going back 250 years to 2025—the midpoint in the life of the USA—the human experiment was looking bleak. We humans were heading down a path toward annihilation--
extreme economic inequity, violent competition for dwindling resources, cultural colonization,
unsustainable practices and environmental devastation were driving our species, and many
others, to extinction. Despite the advanced technologies and richness of the planet, billions of
people were impoverished, many were desperate. The very life systems of our planet were being

"Amazingly, we changed our path and learned to honor one another and the earth. It took 250
years, but look at us now in 2275! Who knew, from the challenging situation we faced in the
early part of the 21st century, that we would end up with healthy abundant local food for
everyone—with food systems that provide fair compensation, retained cultural diversity and
ecologically sustainable.  How humans came to this new food reality in 2275 is an incredible story. " (- reflection from Andrew Kang Bartlett, of the Presbyterian Hunger Program).

As I considered the impossibility (and I think I'm a bit of an optimist) of this idyllic scenario recently with a small group of people of faith, it occurred to me that something really could lead to this huge change necessary to take us in that direction; and it has the potential to happen right now.


Secretary of State, John Kerry is in Cuba today Friday August 14 to raise a US flag at the once de facto and now actual U.S. Embassy whose location is signaled by Cuban forefather at the Tribuna Anti-Imperialista or Anti-Imperialist Platform.  The Cuban Embassy in the United States was just opened weeks ago. 

As relations are "normalized" between the two nation states, it is easy to imagine the policies and social practices of the US will have a much greater impact on Cuba than will policies and social practices of the socialist island nation. But, Cubans have a strong proud history of resistance, and they will not easily succumb to that which they perceive to be good for their society. 

A brief history: After the Cuban revolution claiming independence from Spain around the turn of the 20th century, interest groups from the United States began to harvest the "fruit" of Cuba. By the 1950s, the U.S. fully supported an oppressive government led by President Batista. Poverty and crime were rampant, health care and education were accessible for only the rich, and economic disparity was widespread. US corporations and citizens owned a great majority of the island's land and resources. The people of the island were overlooked and/or exploited, as was the case on other islands in the Caribbean. A bold revolt took place led by a young lawyer named Fidel Castro. It's beginnings on the Granma were humble, even laughable, seemingly posing little threat as they gathered in the remote western mountains on the island. But slowly, as the group made its way toward the capital, people joined in and a force was mounted strong enough to overthrow the existing Batista government. During the years of revolt, the US government was unsure which party they should support, so they supported both. 

Castro and his rebel group claimed power 1 January 1959. Initially, when Fidel Castro claimed power, he was cautiously embraced by the US government and President Eisenhower .  But, as, he and his appointed ministers began to implement sweeping reforms, nationalizing many of the major industries, and eventually converting almost all major interests, to ownership by the commons or the state, meaning US entities no longer had ownership or profits, US policy shifted dramatically. Most Cuban citizens on the island who opposed losing their property and having their bank accounts ceased by the government fled if they were able to do so with what little they could hold onto. Some who resisted were disappeared or executed. Cuban pastors with connections to US churches through historical relationships fled as well. As one elderly church member in San Antonio de Los Baños told me, "Eran nuestro ejemplo y nos dejaron por el dinero...they [our pastors] were our example, and they left us for money."  This was the case for many who left. I would not have wanted to be in their shoes to have to make that decision in a time of uncertainty and unrest. 

At his famous 1960 UN speech, Castro strongly condemned the pressuring actions of the United States and as a result. This is when he and the people of the island were ostracized in earnest, and the embargo began. The so called "Cuban missile crisis" in 1962 still strikes a nerve of those where were alive at the time to remember it. The discord among governments was uncharacteristically prevalent due to the reality that the island's proximity to the U.S., and yet, Castro and the island was able to successfully implement that which U.S. policy so adamantly opposed during the cold war, something seen as the antithesis of the American way of life - their fledgling version of Communism/Socialism.

For over 50 years, despite sanctions, trade restrictions, threats, even attempted coup d'etat, the United States could not twart the efforts and determination of Castro and the people, Los Revolucionarios.
We continue the fight
Image of Fidel Castro and the Granma in the ocean with caption: "Combat continues."

As a result of a concerted effort over the course of decades of formation, a society has emerged with a particular set of values--community, care, health, well-being, good for all, respect, education, as well as remarkably relatively low crime, drug use and violence, and sexism and racism--values well esteemed and desired by many in the world, but have been elusive, especially in the US in recent decades.

At Bosque Ariguanabo...Teach children to be honest and to defend nature with wisdom
"Teach children to be honest and to defend nature with sensibility." - José Martí, Bosque Martiano, San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba

At the same time that these values were implemented and widely adapted, the Cuban people had very little access to resources and emerging technologies that developed and developing nations had; "development" was stymied. Living on an island, land use was maximized where human living was restricted to certain centers with significant but not unbearable density so that land could be used for farming and ecological preservation. Population and health control was implemented through education, societal practices, and proper resources for women and families. Due to lack of petroleum products, such as fertilizers and equipment, farming practices were organic complemented by innovation. Animal use and consumption was regulated by what was available and what was practically needed for health.

For so many reasons, Cuba had to and in some cases chose to do things differently from so many countries experiencing development and industrialization. As a result, life looks very different there; but just how different? What does that difference look like?

The Good Ole Days
When I was a child growing up in a decade of significant societal changes--the 80s, when Regan implemented neoliberal economic policies coupled by "trickle down" theory, as well as toppled governments in many parts of the world which didn't conform to US interests, most notably in Central America --it was on a fairly consistent basis I would hear from my elders about "the good ole days."  "The good ole' days," referring to a simpler time guided by particular values and norms--honesty, integrity, community, well-being, concern, care--which they would describe with nostalgia and a certain lament. I didn't know what the good ole days were. All I knew was what  I was experiencing in my life around me, and grew weary of hearing about days gone by.

In 2010, I spent a month in Cuba serving a church as part of a pulpit exchange. It was my second relatively lengthy stay on the island.  My first time was in 2002 for three weeks accompanying a group of economic students. I had a very unfavorable impression of Cuba after my first visit--it was just too different (and this was after having spent two years living in Mexico). But, when I returned, my eyes, ears, and heart had a new openness to being there. After the pastoral exchange, I was commissioned by the people to share their stories and life there as often as I was given an opportunity.  In lectures and presentations and conversations, it is not uncommon for elderly listeners to comment on the way I describe day-to-day life and general health and well-being within the community where we were living by saying, "that's how things used to be here."  It occurred to me that Cuba gave my family and I, to a certain extent, a unique gift--experiencing a form of "the good ole days"...and yes it was very good.

Ruby sniffing the national flower of Cuba - White Ginger Lily - Mariposa

The Cuban people have long suffered during the period of the Revolution. Things have been tight due in no small part to the US embargo; yet, they have learned to cope/live and even celebrate with very little resources relative to their "neighbor" to the north. They have learned to value one another and community more than possessions and the pursuit of  individual wealth and domination of others. Yet, they have been asking for decades for a lift to the embargo.  As I have heard their stories, it is clear, they want access to modernity.

As relationships normalize between the US and Cuba, and the embargo subsides, travel restrictions are lifted, and trade begins, - things in Cuba will change dramatically.  These are the early beginnings of the end of what remains of a form of "the good ole days."  At least, perhaps they are.

This could also be a time when those of us who take interest in the island could approach the island, not with blind ambitions of conquest--"Been there done that," or with a desire to exploit and consume for pleasure or potential economic gain, and not with an intention to "help" or convert the people to the "American way of life" particularly under the auspices of religious motivations; but instead to approach the island nation with openness to learning--with a cup of knowledge not full but that needs to be filled--and gleaning from their reality ways we might make aspects of their reality our own.  This is a unique time in our history. My prayer is that we, as a society with our many gifts but also with abundant flaws, may seize an opportunity to consider something which might not actually be that different from how our society once was.  Most of all, I pray that which is good and honorable in Cuba may be preserved for generations to come as the respective flags are raised on one another's soil.

Two revolutionary combatants, Jose Baujasan and Elandio Aguiar in an interview this morning reflected the changing relations with confidence about going forward. Note the conclusion of Baujasan in his comment:
JOSE BUAJASAN: [translated] We think rapprochement with the U.S. is a success of Cuban policies. They have been unable to destroy us. Now they will use the second lane, as they say. It’s fine. They will come here precisely using the economic problems we have. They will use them. Evidently, they will try to capture people. But we can also teach them many things.
Will people in the U.S. be open to learning?

And this from Eladio Aguiar expressing a determination to hold on to their way of life, and perhaps even subversively influencing the U.S. way of life as well:
ELADIO AGUIAR: [translated] We are prepared for that, for a long fight, and to finally overcome all these difficulties. Of course, we do not expect the U.S. to become a socialist country in the long run. Nor do we claim that, either. But they should at least learn to live civilly with us, who have never caused any harm to the U.S.
Socialism may not be the answer for the Great Turning as described above, and it certainly has it's drawbacks, but perhaps for those who desire a Great Turning the human social experiment that is Cuba may actually provide a insight into possibilities for such a turning. 

Playa Varadero
Pristine beaches at Varadero.