By Joe LaGuardia
On 6 November 2017, I embarked on a mission trip with a small group of clergy and lay leaders to Cuba through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. In partnership with the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba, the CBF has been nurturing mission opportunities over the past several years. These are my diaries from the trip. Find the “Introduction” here.
A team of seven of us, made up of 3 lay leaders, 2 CBF personnel, and 2 clergymen, arrived in Havana around 10:30 AM. Our first exposure to life in Cuba was in the airport: crowds of people, expecting family and huddled with tears of expectation. Children passed the time at play. One of the members from our team, a Cuban transplant, mentioned that the emotions have to do with the arrival of people who may not have seen each other for decades. We waited for our whole team, then departed to lunch and our accommodations.
As we drove through the city, I was enamored with the cars, people, and architecture that told of a rich history somehow stuck in the past. It is as if someone came along in the 1950s and took a snapshot that exists in an historical loop. The Chevrolet coupes tell of a one-time thriving middle class who enjoyed grocery stores and plenty, of liberty and dignity. The architecture is reminiscent of Frank Loyd Wright and the art deco I came to love when I once lived in Miami.
My emotions betray me. It is beautiful, but it is an illusion. The beauty is profound: If Cuba was to open fully to investment, travel, and tourism, I would argue that no new architecture would be needed, merely a facelift. I could see people flocking from the United States in search of golden years lost in the past, an escape from the hyper-technology of the 21st Century. Of course, if the U.S. were to lift its embargo, technology would come as swiftly as the visitors to these humble shores.
But it is an illusion: Havana is a charming place, but impoverished. Tourists who come here for inexpensive vacations only see what the communist regime wants them to see. We spent $4.50 on lunch, for instance–and we raved of the low cost for fresh-to-table meat and vegetables–but, as I have mentioned in my own pulpit before, there is a high cost to low prices. That amount, though small for us, makes up roughly six days of salary for the average Cuban. Tourists roughly spend what amounts to two week’s worth of a Cuban’s salary for an alcoholic beverage.
After lunch, we went to our accommodations to rest. My apartment-mate, John (a lay leader) and I are staying on the second floor of Cuba’s version of an air-bnb. Our hostess showed us how to lock the doors. She instructed us to shut off the lights when not in use, and only turn on the air conditioner–one per room–at night. Electricity does not come cheap, and regardless of how the neighborhood appeared, once a bustling middle-class suburb of the city, both money and resources are hard to come by. She needed cash up-front to insure that breakfast would be on the table the next morning and the length of our stay.
After settling in, we took a walk in the neighborhood. We passed a school where children in uniforms shuffled in and out. We walked through an old, walled cemetery. We coughed our way through Havana’s pollution-laden streets until we came to a park that memorialized one of America’s fiercest foes, Ho Chi Minh.
I had several Hot Wheels cars in my pocket–trinkets from the U.S. I intend to give to children along the way–and I commented to John that I should have brought gifts for the adults too. As a joke, I suggested cigarettes, like those who barter for better things as if in a prison.
“Jail on an island,” he quipped. With all of the tears we experienced at the airport, solemn heads of passersby hung low, and many people rummaging around in second-hand clothing, John may not have been far from the truth. Someone mentioned that it takes $800.00 for a Cuban to get a passport in order to travel off the island. With that kind of price, it might as well be Rykers, Sing-sing, or Alcatraz.
Cubans are held captive in more ways than one. Technology and access to the internet are limited. No small masses of people huddle on random street corners where the government places wi-fi hotspots, regulated in both content and price. It takes $2.00 an hour for people to Facetime loved ones or catch up on email or Facebook posts. You can tell when people are communicating with loved ones who lives off-island because they weep. People who debate in the park or not talking politics lest they speak too loudly around government moles; rather, they argue about topics that are safe–baseball, mostly.
Over dinner, one of our companions Marti told of her escape from Cuba in 1961. She, along with two siblings, went to the United States as exiles from the “Peter Pan” program, a government-run child labor law in which children worked the fields. Often, parents did not know where their children went–one day they brought them to school, and the next day they were gone. The Catholic Church supported the program, so solace and protest were hard to come by.
It took all of the family’s savings to send Marti and her siblings to a friend in Miami. She was young, scared, hurt and resentful for having to learn a new language, a new way of life. It took two years for her mother to join them, and another two years for her father to do the same. This, all before Castro finally ousted President Batista’s forces in 1965.
On the final day of our stay in Havana, all of us, including Marti, stopped by her childhood home. She was nervous, and she cried. We all cried, really. She touched the wrought iron fence that was once her own. She took a picture, and then she left it behind again. Her job, children, and grandchildren, not to mention all of the children she serves at church, needed her back in Florida. Like most Cuban Americans, home is not necessarily where the heart is–it is somewhere lost in time, space, and art deco.