Count me among those who are applauding President Obama’s recent action to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and further relax restrictions on travel, etc. More than 16 years ago, I visited Cuba as part of a delegation from the board of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Our purpose was to learn about the reality of life in Cuba with a further goal of advocating for an end to the U.S. embargo. While the President’s recent action does not end the embargo, I believe it is a step in the right direction, based in part on what I observed all those years ago. I wrote a journal while I was in Cuba and when I returned, I did a presentation for the board in which I reflected on our experiences. As I read back over those reflections 16 years later, I am impressed with how what I heard and observed then is relevant in the current environment. Here are some slightly edited excerpts from my reflections on September 18, 1998.
On needing enemies
During our discussion with the head of the Cuban council of churches, he noted that “United States ideology needs an enemy” – and he went on from there to say that Cuba was a necessary enemy right now . Of course, needing an enemy isn’t peculiar to the U. S. We also heard that the Cuban government uses the embargo to oppress the people. In other words, the government can withhold food or other goods deliberately, but then blame it on the U.S. embargo. Having enemies seems to go both ways. Both the U.S. and Cuba seem to benefit from the perpetuation of enemy status.
When we visited the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, an official said he has to “psychologically divorce himself from the Cuban people’s lives.” We assumed he meant that it would be difficult for him to do his job (maintain enemy relations, perhaps?) if he learned to know the Cubans as individual people or as friends. And yet, a Cuban government official claimed that Cuba is open to dialogue and negotiation with the U.S. The only condition, he said, is that there be no conditions, but that Cubans be able to speak as equals. Maybe this was propaganda, but maybe we ought to call their bluff. Maybe, like Abraham Lincoln is quoted as having once said, we could defeat the enemy by making them a friend. Maybe that’s what it would mean to overcome evil with good or heap coals of fire on their heads (see Romans 12:14-21).
The meaning of truth
On our last morning in Havana, we visited with two officials of the National Assembly of Popular Power. While we were there, we were served beverages placed on coasters with the words “Siempre Libres” on them – “always free.” As I thought about those words and what they mean in the Cuban context – a communist country the average American thinks is quite the opposite of free – I couldn’t help thinking of Jesus’ words, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Obviously, Jesus’ words can’t be literally applied to Cuba, but they did create an interesting set of questions for me:
1. What does Cuba mean when they say they are “always free”?
2. What is the truth about Cuba?
3. What truth(s) did we learn while we were there?
4. Whose truth did we learn?
5. Is there ever only one truth about a given thing, or idea, or circumstance?
I’ve always known that each of us sees things through our own lenses, and those lenses are affected by our genes, race, geography, economic status, religious beliefs, political opinions, life experiences, etc. The “truth” of this phenomenon seemed to be dramatically illustrated through our experiences during one week in Cuba. We heard different versions of the same situation or event or circumstance. When we went to Washington after returning, we heard the official U.S. version of the truth given us by the National Security Council. I feel like I have not yet discovered the full truth about Cuba.
All of this reinforced the importance of listening and not drawing conclusions too quickly, because there may be another side, another reality, another truth. I became convinced that there isn’t just one truth about Cuba. It is important to be careful not to generalize about Cuba based on limited experience and observation, but at the same time to be willing to speak the truth as I felt it while I was there.
Finally, a few lingering images and impressions of Cuba
Wonderful people so willing and eager to talk about their lives and share whatever was in their hearts – people whose Christian faith had sustained them through many years and difficult circumstances. [We visited the Brethren in Christ Church in Cuba, as well as a Mennonite house group that wasn’t officially registered with the government but at the time operated under the registration of the Brethren in Christ.]
- Ongoing wonderment regarding the truth about Cuba; e.g., would it be good for the embargo to end [my personal view in 1998 and still in 2014], or would it upset the balance of things and make life worse?
- Old 40s and 50s vintage American cars still running, albeit often beat-up and spewing toxic fumes.
- A variety of modes of transportation – old cars of course, plus bicycles (some with two or three people riding them), motorcycles, side cars, multiple versions of buses. I saw no accidents or traffic jams – there seemed to be general courtesy in the streets; even car horns, though common, were polite little beeps.
- Revolutionary slogans all over the place, but no advertising billboards.
- Mangos, guava juice, papaya – bringing back memories of an African childhood.