The six of us were the only Americans flying to Havana from Miami on a chartered flight in March. The others were Cuban, many with packages of goods purchased to take home. The mood among the Cubans was festive. I was excited in a more interior way, looking forward to seeing friends in Guines, the town southeast of Havana where we were going.
We were Dennis and Barbara D’Andrea and Patricia Wadzinski, members of the East Hampton Presbyterian Church; John White, Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church; Steve Calo, the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church, and me, pastor emeritus of the Amagansett Presbyterian Church.
U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba for religious purposes do so legally with a license from our Treasury Department. The process of getting the license has been simple, but the rules change. As of this April religious travel will no longer require a license.
I’ve been to Cuba eight times, and I’m usually asked upon my return if I’ve noticed changes. Yes. Two things of note: economic hard times in Cuba and the government’s initiative to permit some private enterprise.
One Cuban pastor told us there are now half a million unemployed in Cuba, and the number is expected to rise to 16 percent of the population of 11 million. Food is also a problem. There is not enough.
The government had provided free lunches to children at school, but it can’t do that now. There has always been some food rationing. It’s not like refrigerators are stocked or you can run up to a supermarket to get more. There are no supermarkets. I spoke with the Rev. Ismael Madruga one morning on his way to a neighborhood food store. He is the retired pastor of the church we visit. He was on his way to buy eggs, and he showed me his ration book. There is some good news here. He can now buy five eggs a week, up from four!
One recent change in economic policy was to allow people to lease uncultivated arable land from the government and split farm proceeds 50-50 with the government. The government also encourages small business ventures, though it’s difficult within the structure of a socialist economy.
We were given one example. An individual or a family can now go into the bakery business, selling bread. Cubans get their daily bread in the morning, long or short loaves (like French bread). The difficulty is this: There is no wholesale level of business to handle the private bread shops. What happens then is that the owner of a private enterprise goes to a government bread shop and buys up bread to sell privately. This has two effects. It creates a shortage of bread at the government shops, so there are now long lines to get bread where there hadn’t been previously. And the private shop will charge more because of the expense of running the business, however modest.
The business is also taxed. One long loaf of bread at a private store costs 10 Cuban pesos, which is the equivalent of half a day’s wages. A short loaf of bread is 5 pesos. I don’t know the price at a government store, but obviously it’s less. There are two currencies, one for Cubans, the other for visitors to Cuba. The latter is called the convertible peso, or CUC. On this trip the exchange was 86 cents American to 1 CUC. In the domestic Cuban currency, 1 peso is equal to 8 cents.
We were guests of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Guines. We were legally able to take cash to the church for capital improvements and to augment the church’s outreach into the community. One new program is a weekly lunch for senior citizens. We also legally took with us over-the-counter and prescription medicines. The latter are distributed by the church with medical supervision.
The pastor of the Guines church is Yampier Sanchez, a young man who visited East Hampton last year. He just got a new car — a 1955 Ford! Purple, diesel engine. One night Yampier took me for a ride. We rumbled through the streets, windows down in the warm tropical air, people outside after work and young people in the streets. Having come of age in the early 1950s I felt like a teenager again myself, cruising around town.
Yampier’s car does not have a title because the purchase of it was private, “on the left,” as the expression goes. Purchases through proper channels, as with daily bread, are “on the right.” To ask a Cuban (or anyone else) how the Cuban economy works is to get a shrug of the shoulders. Who knows? Yampier quoted Leonardo Padura, a Cuban writer: “In Cuba it’s better to live it than to explain it.”
The people do enjoy free medical care and free education. On the downside, political debate is not open, outside Internet access is blocked except for professionals like doctors, and travel is severely limited. E-mail is open for those who have computers, but few among those we know in Guines have them.
There is of course underground political comment on the slant, or sotto voce. I was speaking with some men and women after a Sunday church service (where I had preached). Informally I commented on our government’s rules to get a license to travel, and I said in Spanish that it seemed one office didn’t know what another office was saying on the same subject. One Guines woman said quietly in English, “Not just your government.”
With all the complexities and hardships, the people live their lives. Men and women go to work, children go to school, churches thrive as social centers, there are fiestas or parties, youth flirt and date, the old gossip in their doorways. What else is new, the world over?
I have become especially close to one family, and I visited them in their home. Olga is the grandmother. Her son, Lazaro, works for the rum company Havana Club. His wife, Hilda, is a teacher. They have two sons, Yadiel, age 15, and Yassiel, 11. Lazaro gave me a bottle of Havana Club. Strictly speaking we’re not to bring rum back to this country, but since it was a gift I thought I’d take a chance, and it got through.
All of us in our group went on pastoral visits to church members. The homes are modest, to put it mildly, and vary greatly in appearance and repair. Some families receive money from relatives in the U.S., and a visitor can see that assistance in the upkeep of those houses. Other houses are old wood structures that look as though they might fall down.
In that mixed context, church is a vital social experience. Churches are thriving in Cuba, where in the 1960s through the ’80s churches were repressed. Things opened up in the early ’90s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Sunday school of the Guines church has 80 children, the adult congregation close to 150, with a good choir. The morning service lasts two hours, broken into segments: study, worship, and a break with juice and cookies outside. Singing is lusty; open prayer is heartfelt.
I enjoy the slower pace of life in Guines. Many walk or ride bicycles to work. Children walk to school and play in the street afterward. There are very few personal computers, and our American cellphones have no reception — oh, the bliss of that quiet! As with the old Ford, I felt I’d been transported back into the 1950s. It’s pleasant, and bittersweet, because at the end of it we return to our hyped and hooked-up society, a jarring contrast.
The Rev. Thomas Schacher of the East Hampton Presbyterian Church will be taking a group of young people to Guines in July. And I look forward to next year when I will again see my Cuban friends.