Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Walls Come Tumbling Down: It's Time for a New Relationship with Cuba

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Walls Come Tumbling Down: It's Time for a New Relationship with Cuba

Article excerpt

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A WARNING SIGN greeted my three traveling companions and me at the Havana airport on the morning of departure from Cuba. Written in Spanish with English translation, it listed the many items that passengers are prohibited from bringing on flights. Among them were "catapults:'

We laughed as we pictured somebody trying to drag one of those massive Roman weapons loaded with boulders into the airport to check it onto a plane. Or struggling to get it into the overhead compartment. The accompanying picture made clear that the appropriate translation would have been "slingshots."

I was pondering how challenging it is to overcome differences of culture and language as I settled into my window seat on the packed flight to Cancun, Mexico, when an elderly Cuban man took the seat next to mine. He had the creased face and calloused hands of a farmer who had spent a lifetime in the fields. He told me that he was on his way to visit his family in Florida, whom he hadn't seen in many years. And he had never been on a plane before.

When the flight attendant brought around the customs forms we needed to fill out, my seatmate borrowed my pen, placed my form next to his, and began copying it, beginning with my name. He had grown up in the years before the revolution, when Cuba was a playground for wealthy North Americans, when vast resources were channeled into luxury hotels and gambling casinos, into nightclubs and golf courses, rather than into education for Cuba's children. I realized that he didn't know how to read. With me guiding him through the process, he was able to write his name by copying it, letter by painstaking letter, from his passport.

He didn't know, or didn't have, a street address. He was from La Vallita, a rural village I had visited that was colorful with dusty poinsettias and bougainvillea and fences made out of thin, growing cactus. When he was done filling out the form, he smiled triumphantly. I realized, in that snapshot of a moment, we had overcome virtually every obstacle that divides human beings: language, nationality, gender, class, race, age, education.

MY TRAVELING COMPANIONS and I--all members of Circle of Mercy, the congregation I co-pastor in Asheville, North Carolina--spent Martin Luther King Day packing up 50-pound duffel bags with medicine, vitamins, school supplies, linens, and clothes. We were headed to our sister church, Iglesia Getsemani in Camaguey, Cuba.

We're committed to our sister-church relationship being a mutual spiritual partnership, rather than a connection through charity or even "mission" But we couldn't escape the vast difference between our two congregations in our capacities to acquire resources. Although our gesture was illegal--a violation of the economic blockade--we were clear that our relationship would lack integrity if we allowed our sisters and brothers to suffer without basic necessities.

In fall 2008, hurricanes Gustav, Ike, and Paloma slammed Cuba with full force, destroying many homes, fruit trees, and crops. In the wake of the massive suffering that resulted, the Cuban government asked the Bush administration to temporarily lift the longstanding U.S. economic embargo. Our government refused.

When we arrived in Cancun, we discovered that our visas still hadn't come through--despite giving three months to the process. We soon learned that no foreign visitors had been allowed in Cuba during November and December, and no visa applications had been processed until January. During November and December, all available rooms in guesthouses and hotels had been given over to the approximately 530,000 Cuban families whose homes had been damaged or destroyed by the hurricanes. It was our first taste of Cuban priorities.

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Our generous hosts for the week included the national Fraternidad Bautista, the Kairos Christian Center and ecumenical Evangelical Seminary of Theology in Matanzas, and the Martin Luther King Jr. …

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