Thursday, April 30, 2015

Cuba Libre

The expression Cuba libre ("free Cuba") began life, according to most accounts, as a political expletive at the time of what Americans call the Spanish-American War (1898) and Cubans remember as the occasion of their independence from Spain. Of course, it is best known now as the name of a cocktail featuring rum, cola, and lime juice. My recent five nights and part or all of six days in Cuba, however, afford me a perspective in which "Cuba" and "free" dance with one another in some interesting ways. What I share below is mostly straight travelogue, interspersed, I hope, with some of my personal observations and reflections, with some summaries thereof at the end.

First, the background: Bishops in the Episcopal Church are grouped into "classes," defined by the year of their election and identified by the year following. Hence, I am in the Class of 2011, which consists of twelve bishops who were all elected in 2010. We all attended three five-day annual residencies sponsored by the College for Bishops, known as Living Our Vows. Several bishops from other Anglican provinces often attend this program as well--most often Canada--and, in our case, we were joined by the Bishop of Cuba, Griselda Delgado. The Diocese of Cuba was, for most of its history (well over a century) part of TEC. When the revolution came in 1959, with the ensuing restrictions on travel and fund transfers, it became impractical to continue the relationship, and the diocese entered extra-provincial status within the Anglican Communion, with primatial oversight provided by a panel of archbishops.) When we completed the three-year Living Our Vows program, the Class of 2011 bishops decided to try and continue getting together annually for continuing education purposes. Last year, we met in Albuquerque, home of one of our number. In the meantime, Bishop Griselda invited us to visit Cuba, and we decided to take her up on her offer. A parish in the Diocese of Wyoming (whose bishop is one of us) has had en established partnership with a parish in Cuba, so there were resources who knew what levers had to be pulled to get us religious visitor visas (this was underway well before the recent thaw in relations between our two countries). So, on Easter Monday, April 6, we all made our way to Miami in anticipation of our departure for Havana the following day.

Tuesday, April 7

I took the 9am shuttle from the Hampton Inn to Miami International and arrived well ahead of our appointed 10am rendezvous in the G Concourse of the North Terminal. A couple of my colleagues were already waiting there, and others straggled in, the last one being the most critical, because he was hand-carrying the copies of the visas each of us would need to be able to board our flight to Havana. We were met by a representative of Cuba Tours, the agency that arranged our trip, who shepherded us through the check-in process of the charter airline Gulfstream, which apparently does business with another charter airline called World Atlantic, which was the livery on our actual aircraft. First we had to hand over our passports, wait around, queue up to check our bags, wait around some more, queue up again to pay a baggage handling fee, wait around some more, and finally proceed to the TSA screening area. Never has there been so much red tape and bureaucracy for such a short flight. Once inside the gate area, we were able to grab something to eat, which was a welcome opportunity. The boarding process was just as inefficient as the check-in process, and by the time we pushed back, it was about 45 minutes past our scheduled 1pm departure. The aircraft was an MD80, and ... let's just say ... it was not a recent addition to anyone's fleet. But, once airborne, the flight was mercifully short, maybe 45 minutes, including taxi time at both ends. It occurred to me that the distance between Miami and Havana is shorter than that between Springfield and Chicago. 

Flights arriving from the U.S. and a handful of other places are directed to a separate terminal at Jose Marti International Airport. Passport control and customs went smoothly, with another representative of the tour company on hand to present us with our actual visas. It was evident immediately that we were in a third world country. The wait at the baggage carousel was inordinately long. Once outside, we were met by our guide and companion for our entire visit, an ebullient and outgoing gentleman named Manuel (aka Manny). He works for a company called Havanatur, which is a government-sponsored entity, though Manny preferred to downplay that detail. He collected us and escorted us to the place where we could exchange the Canadian cash we had brought with us for Cuban Units of Convertibility--or CUCs (pronounced to rhyme either with "cook" or "kook," depending on one's disposition), which are worth 24 pesos (aka "Cuban regulars"). CUCs are in the process of being phased out, but they are convenient for Americans because they convert 1:1 to and from USD. 

We then boarded our comfortable (and comfortably air-conditioned) 40-passenger bus (which left plenty of room for eleven bishops, four wives of bishops, the communications officer of the Diocese of Utah, whose goal was to make a video record of our visit, plus Manny, to spread out in). And those stories you hear about pre-revolution American cars in Cuba? They're all true. I would guess that around 30% of the vehicles on the road date from 1959 or earlier. Many of them appear to be in remarkably good condition, though we were warned not to assume that any of them had a functioning brake system. About half an hour later, the bus deposited us at the Hotel Presidente, about three blocks from the ocean, in the heart of the "modern" (that is, post-1863) section of the city. It was build in the 1920s for a visit by Calvin Coolidge; hence, the name. I assume it's been renovated a couple of times since then, but not particularly recently. It's run by a hotel corporation called ROC--yes, another government entity. The lobby, bar, and breakfast area are quite pleasant in an old-fashioned classy sort of way, but the rooms have not kept pace with the expectations of travelers from the developed world. The place is a dowager, and, in many ways, is emblematic of the country as a whole. 

After some time to unpack, we were met by a representative of the Diocese of Cuba, who led us on foot over what had to be the better part of a mile to the restaurant where we had reservations. It's one of the new private enterprises that have arisen since the strictures of hard-line socialism have been loosened over the last couple of decades (necessitated by the evaporation of support from the now-defunct Soviet Union). The ambience was lovely, but the actual room set aside for our large party was windowless (and therefore airless) and cramped. Nonetheless, we had a wonderful time with Bishop Griselda and a handful of her staff members. The food was not horrible, but it was not great. On the whole, it was an auspicious start to our remarkable journey.

Wednesday, April 8

On the bus after breakfast, with our bags packed and checked out of our rooms, for a ride of a few short blocks to the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity, located in a tree-lined residential neighborhood that, in its day, was quite upscale--lots of grand homes that are now multi-family dwellings. As it happened, the cathedral was hosting the annual meeting of the Cuban Council of Churches, so we were brought in to be introduced to them, and each of us brought a brief word of greeting. Bishop Griselda showed us around her offices and introduced us to her staff. At one point, I was set upon by two very enthusiastic ladies, with whom I conversed for a bit entirely in Spanish. My ears catch only about a third (I would estimate) of what native Spanish-speakers say, and while I am "fluent" in as much Spanish vocabulary as I know (and, hopefully, in the present indicative tense), my vocabulary is quite limited, so I can't talk very deeply about any particular topic. So, while I can get along fairly well in Spanish talking with hotel staff, bartenders, restaurant servers, store clerks, and taxi drivers, anything more complex is pretty challenging. Nonetheless, I was pleased that I was mostly able to hold my own with these ladies. 

Before long, it was back on the bus, skirting around the harbor and the old section of Havana, and then east about 100 miles to the city (and province) of Matanzas. There we visited the only non-Roman Catholic "mainline" seminary on the island. It was established in the 1940s as an ecumenical venture between Methodists and Presbyterians, and, soon afterward, Episcopalians. The Episcopal Diocese of Cuba continues to maintain a strong relationship with the school. After an extensive tour, we enjoyed lunch in the refectory (a "late" lunch, by American standards--it was around 3pm by the time we sat down) before boarding our bus once again. As we were leaving the area of the seminary, on some narrow streets, we enjoyed seeing a horse and her foal just wandering around freely, the foal constantly trying to find a way to nurse. A couple of my colleague bishops who had spent time living in Italy told me I can now cross Sicily off my bucket list, since, by their lights, I have now "been" there, having been to Matanzas. 

A little further east, and on to a peninsula that veers off into the sea, we were deposited at our lodging for the night in Varadero, which, to our delight turned out to be a beachside hotel. Most of us enjoyed some time walking along the shore and/or in the delightfully warm water on a very warm and breezy late afternoon. A not-too-bad buffet dinner was served by the hotel restaurant. 

Thursday, April 9
On our bus after breakfast a checking out, whereupon we backtracked west for a bit to get of the peninsula that Varadero is on, then turning southeast into the interior of Cuba. In due course, we stopped at the hamlet of Favorito, home of the Church of St Mary Magdalene. If I surmised
correctly, it's a relatively recent plant, and their worship space is a repurposed small house, with which they have done a very good job. The project of interest there is a rain water collection and purification system which they hope will benefit the entire community. They fed us light snacks on the patio, during which I managed a fairly detailed conversation, in Spanish, with a diocesan staff member who was there for the occasion, about, of all things, U.S. presidential politics, specifically the candidacy of Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio. My impression is that Cubans are rather more up-to-speed about most things American than Americans are about most things Cuban. 

We then headed on down the road in the same direction to the nearby village of Itabo, and the Church of St Mary the Virgin. St Mary's is, by Cuban Episcopalian standards, an older structure, dating back to well before the revolution. They have acquired several acres of land adjacent to the church and are operating a sort of mini-farm (including a collection of pigs), where the emphasis is on sustainable practices, and, again, with hope of benefiting the entire community. After touring the area, we gathered in the church for a (probably too long) presentation on the ministry and strategy of, not just the parish, but the entire diocese. By the time they served us a lunch of freshly-caught and wonderfully prepared red snapper in a lovely covered patio, it was already mid-afternoon. 

Back on the bus once again, we continued in a roughly southerly and easterly direction, arriving eventually at the port city (on the Caribbean side of the island) of Cienfuegos, situated on a large and beautiful bay. Our hotel, constructed just before the 1959 revolution, was a caricature of its own genre, giving off a 1950s bon vivant vibe, with a Latin beat. And so it was emblematic of the sort of juxtaposition that most Americans feel when they visit Cuba in this present moment. The artifacts of the pre-revolutionary American-dominated culture survive and are maintained (again, witness the automobiles!). Yet, the countryside is speckled with hortatory billboards (since commercial billboards are not allowed) extolling the virtues of socialism and trying to sustain revolutionary fervor among the people. 

After checking in and taking some time to get settled, Manny led us on foot, walking along the bay on a gorgeous evening, to the restaurant where we had our dinner reservations. Like most eateries in a mostly tropical climate, the lines between indoors and outdoors were delightfully blurry, and while the food may not have been stellar, the ambience and the company made up for anything it lacked. 

Friday, April 10
Not much to do today except travel, as Cienfuegos was the furthest away from Havana that our itinerary would take us. But first, we stopped by St Paul's Church, right on the main thoroughfare through town. It was only a hastily-arranged visit--they hadn't been expecting us for very long--and there was a service going on when we arrived. As discreetly as we could the sixteen of us filed in, essentially doubling the congregation. At that moment, they were reciting the Nicene Creed, and very quickly it became obvious that they were following the Spanish version of the 1928 Prayer Book. But, after the Sanctus, they continued with the Great Litany and some further intercessions and devotions, never proceeding with the Eucharist itself. I am still in the dark about what precisely was going on, but it was eventually explained to us that this was a general memorial service for the departed, and that they use the 1979 liturgy there on Sundays. We did have a short visit with the priest and his wife following the service.

Then, instead of heading straight up the "national highway" (Cuba's version of an interstate, build in the 70s and 80s by the Russians) northwest back to the capital, Manny took us on an excursion more due west along the southern coast ... to the infamous Bay of Pigs. There were actually three landing points for this ill-fated 1961 expedition of CIA-trained Cuban ex-pats, but there's a museum commemorating "the first defeat of the Yankee imperialists" in the town of Giron, and that's where we headed. After taking our time looking at old weapons and a captured tank and the remains of a shot-down aircraft, we proceeded north along the actual bay, which is beautiful on a picture-book way, with waters made azure by the presence of extensive coral reefs. It's a haven for SCUBA divers and snorkelers. We eventually found the national highway and, in due course (again, later than Americans are accustomed to eating lunch), we pulled over into their version of a rest area/tollway oasis. There was a gift shop, a place to get rum and coconut milk to mix together and drink out of a hollowed-out pineapple, and a cafe. At the cafe, if one was hungry, once could purchase a ham sandwich, a cheese sandwich, or, as you might imagine, a ham and cheese sandwich. Until, that is, they ran out, which they did while we were there. One could also get a can of soda, of the only brand available in Cuba, either in cola or lemon-lime, because ... why would you want anything else? Now it was all quite reasonably priced (OK, darn inexpensive, as was food and drink everywhere we went). But selection and quality are not characteristics that a controlled economy is very adept at producing.

By late afternoon, we were entering the Havana area, and were eventually deposited back at the Hotel Presidente, grateful that we were there for two nights this time, and could enjoy a respite from living day to day out of a suitcase. After an opportunity to settle in, we reported back to the bus for the short ride to Bishop Griselda's Havana residence (she and her husband also maintain their original home in Matanzas), next door to the cathedral. It's an elegant structure, with 14' ceilings, built in the 1940s by Hugo Blankingship, the last American bishop of Cuba. Dinner was prepared for us there (a very nice roast pork), and we were joined by a distinguished guest--the the government's Minister of Religious Affairs, along with one of her staff members. We enjoyed some serious conversation (via Manny wearing his interpreter's hat) before dinner around various ways the government and churches can cooperate for the greater good of Cuban society. Interestingly, the strengthening of marriages was at the top of her list. So, what was once proclaimed to be an "atheist" state is now merely "secular," but with a very benign attitude toward Christians (and the small Jewish community in Cuba; there is no significant Muslim population).

Saturday, April 11
This was a pure tourism day. Manny had the bus take us to the oldest section of Havana, dating back to the early 1500s, on the harbor ("Remember the Maine!--this is where it happened) Our first stop was a cigar store, which also sold rum. I'm not a cigar guy (yes, I know I have friends and relatives who are, but I guess I just must not love them enough), but I did pick up a nice bottle of 11-year old sipping rum. We were told we didn't have to shop around for these things, because prices for the same item are the same everywhere, strictly controlled by the government. The old city is a warren of narrow streets, historic buildings (some restored, some still waiting their turn), elegant but shopworn old hotels, restaurants and bars, museums, churches, and a few shops, though not many, as there is not yet a thriving retail sector in Cuba. We lunched in a privately-owned and very popular restaurant (highly recommended by TripAdvisor), that provided, by my lights, the best meal we had while in the country, without a close second. (My choice was grilled shrimp, served with a variety of grilled hot peppers.) 

We then stopped by an open-air market, with rows and rows of private vendors selling crafts, art, clothing, and accessories. I did a little bit of gift shopping, but the highlight of the time there was a conversation (again, all in Spanish) with a vendor from who I didn't buy anything, but who, when she found out I was from the U.S., peppered me with questions relating to how difficult (or not) it was for me to get into the country, and lamenting that she would like to visit the U.S. but the only Cubans who can get entry visas are those with family already here, and she has none. Then, when she found out I am a bishop, enthusiastically assured me that she is a Christian, and asked me to give her a blessing, which I did. What a joy, on so many levels. 

In the evening, we had dinner at another private restaurant on the other side of the harbor entrance, near the historic Spanish fort that guards the city, and near the grounds of the Cuban army's artillery academy. At 9pm every evening, on the grounds of the fort, there is a reenactment, with actors dressed as 18th century Spanish soldiers, that culminates in the firing of a canon pointed out over the water that forms the harbor. It was quite impressive, and there was a large crowd.

Sunday, April 12

We checked out of the Hotel Presidente and boarded our bus for the short ride to the cathedral. They were graciously hospitable; while the liturgy was entirely in Spanish, the page numbers in the (Spanish) Prayer Book were called out in English in order to facilitate our participation. Bishop Griselda presided, with assistance from two priests (one of whom was the cathedral dean). Our own Bishop Mike Milliken (Western Kansas) preached, through an interpreter. At the conclusion of the service, all eleven of us were brought forward and asked to introduce ourselves and bring a brief word of greeting. I took a deep breath, crossed my fingers, and gave mine in Spanish. Nobody laughed, so it must have been intelligible. The signing was led by what we would call in this country a Praise Band, the members of which were all quite competent musicians. I was fascinatedly distracted the whole time by a bird that flitted back and forth between the top of the canopy above the grand pulpit, and a clerestory-type window that allowed her access to the outside. I can only surmise that she had a nest inside the church, which brought to mind the familiar words from Psalm 84: "The sparrow has found her a house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young, by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts." 

When we were finished with our greetings, it was time to get right to the airport. En route, Manny had the driver take us through some quite interesting residential neighborhoods, reflecting the great wealth that was accumulated in Cuba during the sugar boom of the 1920s. Once at the airport, all went relatively smoothly, though we were amused by the observation that the immigration and customs officials who were female all wore some version of black lace or fishnet stockings with their uniforms, and that the drug-sniffing dog was not a menacing German shepherd but an adorable spaniel, whose handler willingly instructed it to pose for pictures. Once aboard our aircraft, our final Cuban adventure was a half-hour delay on the tarmac while we waited for President Raul Castro's plane, direct from the historic summit in Panama, to land and have him deplane and exit the airport. The delay was about as long as the actual flight back to Miami.

Final Thoughts
Cuban society is amazingly hardy and resilient. It survived and adapted during centuries of colonial subjugation by Spain until 1898, then effective colonial subjugation by the United States until 1959, and now 57 years of Communist rule that has simultaneously increased literacy to an enviable rate and produced such a surplus of well-trained physicians that they are rented out to other countries for cash, and also inflicted the usual consequences of a centralized economy--shortages of consumer goods and a redistribution, not of wealth, but of poverty. Embracing the dual challenge of socialist strictures and an economic boycott by the U.S. is what has called forth the ingenuity leading to the continued operation of so many antique automobiles. Indeed, images of these cars have been absorbed into the Cuban "brand," and appear on all sorts of souvenir items marketed to tourists. Even the image of Che Guevara, a symbol of the most brutal and doctrinaire phase of the revolution, has been thoroughly commercialized, appearing on hats ubiquitously for sale in a variety of places.

Now Cuba is on the cusp of major change. First, the Soviet Union collapsed 25 years ago, ending the first gravy train that kept the island nation afloat after Castro's revolution. Then Venezuela, under the leadership of the leftist Hugo Chavez, stepped into the breach for a few years. But, between Chavez's death and the plunge in world oil prices, that font of largesse dried up as well. So it's in the interests of the regime to make nice with the U.S. When the details of the relational thaw are worked out, I expect there will be massive private investment in Cuba. This will inure to the benefit of the Cuban population and lift the whole nation economically. Hotels (and, let's face it, casinos) will be built, and all manner of infrastructure will be improved exponentially. And, in the process, some virgin beaches will be over-developed and blighted by high-rise hotels, and the $2.50 cocktails I enjoyed at the bar of the Hotel Presidente will be a thing of the past. It's all so very double-edged.

Personally, here's my biggest takeaway from the trip: I feel like I got to look fifty years into the future of the relationship between Christianity and American culture, and it was encouraging. In the wake of the revolution, Cuba had its own, slightly premature, moment of "post-Christianity." The constitution proclaimed it an officially "atheistic" state. Religious practice was stigmatized and marginalized. Now, five decades later, this is the trend in American society, though it's rolling out at a rather more deliberate pace. But also, now, the Episcopal cathedral in Havana holds theology classes on Saturdays. They are intended primarily to form their own people in ministry, but the classes are open to all comers. There is a steady stream of university students who attend faithfully. There is an intense curiosity about Christianity (and other faith practices) on the part of a generation of young people who are virtual blank slates, who did not grow up with it, for whom it is a fresh novelty rather than an artifact of cultural baggage. When we met with the government minister for religious affairs--the one who will personally have to approve any visit by the Pope--she referred to "our Lord" and openly prayed with us. She articulated a hope for partnerships between the government and churches to attack Cuba's social ills. Top on her list of these challenges was the need to strengthen marriages and families. Such a thing would be virtually unthinkable in U.S. society at present. But there it is, right in the heart of Communist Cuba. So, as American Christianity continues to enter a bit of a winter season, my visit to Cuba gives me hope that spring will indeed come. Not in my lifetime, most likely, but it will come.