God Bless the Whole World, No Exceptions

worldFrom the moment of my birth, I have been inextricably linked to three nations – the United States, the land of my mother’s birth; Canada, where my father was born; and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where I was born. Even though I carry a U.S. passport and have now lived in the U.S. for more than 55 years, I’ve never forgotten my deep roots in and ties to Canada and Zimbabwe (and Zambia, where I also lived as a child). So there’s something in me that instinctively recoils when I hear the words, “America first.” It’s not the association of that phrase with the 1940s and anti-Semitism (disturbing as it is) that makes me recoil; rather, I dislike the idea because it seems to suggest that America is more important than other countries, that we should always be self-interested at the expense of other people in other places.

My own experience and understanding of Christian faith doesn’t fit well with the idea of “America first.” My missionary kid birth and upbringing conditioned me from the beginning to think about other countries besides the U.S. Even after returning to the States, my parents kept in touch with people in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and they were deeply interested in what happened in those countries. As former missionaries, they also maintained their connections with Brethren in Christ Missions in other countries, such as India, Japan, and Cuba.

Except for Canada, I didn’t travel outside the U. S. after we returned from Africa in 1961 until 30 years later in 1991. By then, I was an at-large member of the board of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. I served on the board for 19 years, including nine years as chair. While serving on the board of MCC, which works in approximately 50 countries, I had the opportunity to travel to Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mexico, Zimbabwe , Zambia, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, and Indonesia. These visits always affirmed the fundamental value of individual people of all races and colors and creeds. I have wonderful memories of the people I met, and when I think of these countries, I often think of specific people, especially women, who worked hard and cared for their families just like I do, often under very difficult circumstances.

[Aside: I’ve written before about how my international travel taught me much: “Stories from Around the World, Part 1 and Part 2.” I’ve also written about “Books to Expand My World” highlighting books that remind me there is a world out there beyond the United States. Here’s Part 2 of the post about books.]

From a Christian point of view, caring more about one’s own country and its people seems to be at odds with the concept of being citizens of heaven and the kingdom of God, rather than earthly kingdoms. Jesus didn’t say, “God so loved the United States” (or Palestine, where he lived); he said “God so loved the world.” God created everyone in God’s image, not just Americans, and if we truly believe that, then we should care about the welfare of all people, not just those who live in the United States. John’s vision of a huge choir composed of people from every tribe, language, people, and nation (a multi-ethnic and multi-national kingdom of God) points to a much less ethnocentric and nationalistic view of the world than what is currently being promoted in many places.

All of this is not to say that I’m not patriotic and don’t appreciate the kind of life I enjoy in the United States. I confess to feeling a fairly high degree of patriotism during the Olympics, as just one example, and I can’t help breathing a little sigh of relief when I set foot on familiar American soil again after traveling internationally. I also don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t integrity in taking care of our own people; there is a bit of hypocrisy in railing against poverty, inequality, oppression, and discrimination in other places when we aren’t working hard enough on those issues here at home. Self-interest is a good thing (as Jesus himself suggested when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself”), although not when it ends up always putting personal interests ahead of the needs of others, or hogging the lion’s share of resources when others are suffering.

As Christians, we are connected to a global fellowship, a worldwide church; we care about the welfare of everyone, regardless of where they live. But beyond that, as human beings,  we are all connected to people all over the world. The contemporary world is inextricably interconnected and interdependent, more so than at any time in history, given the relative ease of travel, increased technology, and the ubiquity of the Internet. What we do here affects people in other places, and what other people do affects us; this is especially true when it comes to the use of limited natural resources. Globalism seems to have become a dirty word, but that doesn’t make sense to me. The “America first” mentality seems to operate out of a zero-sum philosophy: we have to be first, which means that no one else can be first; we can’t contribute to the well-being of others in other places because that means we can’t take care of ourselves. Why does it have to be either-or; why can’t it be both-and?

The time-honored ending to every presidential speech is “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.” I understand and respect that, knowing and appreciating that presidents speak as the chief representative and promoter of and advocate for one specific country. But sometimes I also can’t help wishing they would add, “And God bless the whole world, no exceptions.”



Cuba Revisited

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 [1998]. 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.

Scan 2

Political slogans were all over the place – on billboards, painted on walls, and even on a bus!

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

  • Scan 3

    One of the vintage cars that provided some of our transportation. Left to right: Kay Bontrager-Singer, another MCC U.S. board member; the owner and driver of the car; yours truly

    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.



Recommended Reading: Two African Novels

Once again my book clubs have introduced me to books I may not have found otherwise – two more to add to my growing collection of African novels.

Book coverHalf of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is about the civil war in Nigeria in the late 1960s, something I knew next to nothing about. Before reading this novel, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that the only mental image I had of “Biafra” was of starving children. If you’re like me and know next to nothing about Biafra, here’s some background from Wikipedia: “Biafra, officially the Republic of Biafra, was a secessionist state in south-eastern Nigeria that existed from 30 May 1967 to 15 January 1970, taking its name from the Bight of Biafra (the Atlantic bay to its south). The inhabitants were mostly the Igbo people who led the secession due to economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions among the various peoples of Nigeria. The creation of the new state that was pushing for recognition was among the causes of the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War.” I had no clue about the war, and certainly not from the perspective of those who were on the minority Biafran side, so this book was educational in addition to being a good story.

When I think about where I was and what I was doing from 1967-1970, I suppose it’s at least a little understandable that I didn’t know much about Biafra. I was in college and graduate school at the time; I didn’t have TV and I didn’t listen to NPR in those days (actually, NPR was incorporated in February 1970, after the Biafran War was already over), so my knowledge of world events beyond the Vietnam War was fairly limited. That feels like a poor excuse, however, for my ignorance!

In Half of a Yellow Sun, the story of Biafra is told from the point of view of five characters (all Igbo except one): Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy; Odenigbo, a university professor and revolutionary; Olanna, the professor’s mistress; Olanna’s twin sister, Kainene; and Richard, an Englishman infatuated with Kainene. As you might imagine, the war was horrific, and yes, to explain why my only mental image of Biafra is of starving children, there was widespread hunger and deprivation because of the war.

Perhaps the most haunting sentence in the book is this one, which is also the title of a book about the war written by one of the characters: “The world was silent while we died.” During the war, the citizens of the breakaway country of Biafra struggled to gain recognition from other countries, and it didn’t seem like the rest of the world cared very much that thousands of people were suffering and dying in this little tiny country with few resources but lots of pride. I couldn’t help thinking of other times when it has seemed like “the world was silent”: Rwanda, Sarajevo, Bosnia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Syria…and the list could probably go on. What is our responsibility in situations like this? What can and should we do? I honestly don’t know.

Front CoverThe second African novel I read recently is Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. I was much more familiar with the setting and issues in this book because it takes place in colonial Rhodesia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is after I left Rhodesia in 1961 and after Ian Smith declared unilateral independence from Great Britain in 1965, but before the height of the war that resulted in majority black rule and the change of name to Zimbabwe in 1980. Nervous Conditions has been described as one of the best African novels, and is the first by a black Zimbabwean to be published in English outside the country.

The story is told from the point of view of Tambu, a young girl who leaves her rural village to go to the mission school run by her wealthy, British-educated uncle. The book explores coming of age, gender and identity issues. The title refers to the sense of displacement and feelings of ambivalence that come with being a native in a colonial system – everyone in the novel has a “nervous condition.”

There was a lot for me to identify with in this book. It takes places at a time that was not all that far removed from when I lived in Rhodesia. In many ways, the story felt like my story being told from the opposite point of view. As a missionary kid, however, I saw the world I lived in from the point of view of missionaries who believed they were doing a good and right thing – not only by bringing the good news of the gospel to the native people but also by improving their lives with education and medical care. These were good things, but it never occurred to me to think about how the missionaries and other white settlers also disrupted life and created a whole new set of of challenges for the native people. The novel shows the work of missionaries and colonialism from the other side, and how education and white people changed things irrevocably. I appreciated this perspective which is different than the one I grew up with.

The effects of education, westernization and money are explored, along with the loss of traditional values. There is also a loss of language and culture, and distrust of the new culture that seems to be taking over. Family dynamics change when some are able to receive an education and others don’t, when some have wealth and opportunity and others don’t, when those with wealth and advantage are expected to share with and take care of those who don’t. The “nervous condition” of Tambu is clear as she desperately wants an education and forsakes her village and family to get it, even as she critiques her more worldly-wise cousin for her inability to speak the native language anymore and her rebellious attitude toward her parents, especially her father. The cousin’s own “nervous condition” has tragic results when she suffers from an eating disorder that eventually requires professional help to save her life. Interestingly, there are no significant white characters with unique personalities in the book, even though so much of life is controlled by whites. This is Tambu’s story, or as she puts it in the opening paragraph, a story of escape, entrapment and rebellion, told in a fairly introspective style.

There’s so much more to both books that I haven’t mentioned, so you’ll just have to read them if you want to know more!



Stories from Around the World, Part 2

Today I’m continuing with some more stories from my past international travels as a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) board member. See yesterday’s post for stories from Bolivia, Zambia and Cuba.

Southeast Asia, 2000: My trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam in 2000 was my first official travel as a member of the executive committee of the MCC binational board that used to have oversight of MCC’s international programs. I traveled with an MCC staff member and his wife from British Columbia, meeting up with them in the Vancouver airport on the way to our first stop in Bangkok, Thailand. Our time in Thailand was spent with all the Southeast Asia MCC volunteers at a retreat center on the coast, where we served as resource persons. From Thailand we went on to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.


Display case full of skulls

While in Phnom Penh, we visited the Tuol Seng prison museum which documents the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime, as well as one of the “killing fields” where you could still see the holes from digging up the mass graves. We learned that some bodies were brought there already dead, while other people were lined up at the edge of hole and shot or hit so they fell in. A few didn’t die, but played dead until after the soldiers left and then escaped. At the location of this “killing field,” there was also a memorial containing 100s of unidentified skulls. Very chilling sight. I had seen the movie, “The Killing Fields,” and of course had lived through the Vietnam War that spilled over into Cambodia with horrific results, but it was something else entirely to see the way the Cambodians themselves documented this sad chapter in their country’s history.

As someone who came of age during the Vietnam War and internalized a strong commitment to peacemaking and nonviolence, I looked forward to visiting Hanoi, Vietnam, and I found the people warm and friendly. We visited a small business where women worked on a very complicated process of making bowls and other containers that would be sold in Ten Thousand Villages stores in North America. There was a small shop where they displayed their finished products, and I wanted to buy one of the beautiful items to help support their work. Instead, the manager told me I could choose any item I wanted, and he refused to accept my offer to pay. And then he gave me a second piece. I was overwhelmed with the generosity of people who have much less in material wealth than I do.


We watched the women applying
many layers of paint and shellac to
papier-mache-type bowls


One of the bowls I was given –
a favorite in our house

Zimbabwe, 2003: As soon as I heard that the 2003 Mennonite World Conference Assembly would be held in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (where I was born), I knew I really really wanted to go, but I didn’t know how I would work out the details. So I was delighted when I was invited to lead a tour group that would visit Brethren in Christ mission points in Zambia and Zimbabwe before and after the assembly itself. I also represented the MCC U.S. board at the assembly. In the months leading up to the assembly, many doubts and questions were raised as to whether it should be held in Bulawayo, given the political situation, economy, safety issues, food shortages, etc. Most of the doubts came from North Americans, I think, while the Zimbabwe Brethren in Christ Church stood firm in their invitation: “Woza! (Come!) God has something for you!’ And indeed, it was a wonderful gathering, never to be forgotten.

In addition to the opportunity to be back in Zimbabwe again, there were several other personal highlights. The theme of the Assembly was “Sharing Gifts in Suffering and in Joy,” and on the day designated as “North America Day,” I was invited to speak to the thousands of attendees. I reflected on my experience as a North American receiving gifts from people I have visited in various parts of the world (including those bowls in Vietnam). After I spoke, I received yet another gift: meeting a woman my father had helped many years before. He met Makanalia when she was a young girl and living in her village. He noticed that she had a serious vision problem, felt compassion for her, and couldn’t get her out of his mind. Probably realizing that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her to get the help she needed, her parents allowed my father to bring her back to the mission station, and there the missionary doctor helped her get glasses to correct her vision. Makanalia went on to become a teacher and leader in the Zimbabwe church – and never forgot what my father did for her. It was very moving for me to meet her after so many years, especially since my father had just passed away about two months before.


Speaking to the assembly


Our Zimbabwe hosts cooked and
served 12 meals to 7000 guests each.
This was the kitchen!


The checkpoint where I produced
my U.S. passport with a
Zimbabwe birthplace listed

Palestine and Egypt, 2004: For my first (and only) trip to the Middle East, my traveling companion was the chair of the MCC board. We flew into Amman, Jordan, and from there drove through checkpoints to Bethlehem in Palestine. At one checkpoint where we had to produce passports, a young Israeli customs official seemed particularly interested that I was born in  Zimbabwe. She wondered why I didn’t have a Zimbabwean passport. “Don’t you deserve one?” she asked. I was never sure what she meant by that question. In Palestine, we observed sections of the Separation Wall that Israel has been building for years to try to protect itself from Palestinian violence. I found myself repeatedly thinking about Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,”: “something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down,” especially as we met with Palestinians who want peace and are trying to make a living in very difficult circumstances. The Separation Wall splits up their territory into Swiss cheese and sometimes separates Palestinian farmers from their olive trees and other crops, forcing them to go through many checkpoints just to accomplish what should be the simple chores of daily living.

In Cairo, Egypt one evening, we went to the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral for their Wednesday evening Bible study. The Coptic Orthodox pope was celebrating the 50th anniversary of his monasticism at age 81. The church was completely full with about 3000 attendees. Throughout the evening (during an oppressively hot spell in Cairo in a church without air conditioning and 3000 people), the pope had audiences with various individuals and groups, signed little mementos, and gave his Bible study – a long overview of the life of Solomon.


Yasmine and Rana who
followed us around near
Garbage City

Another day, we went to “Garbage City” – an area of Cairo where they collect, sort and recycle garbage. While the setting is rather depressing, many of the people who live there are able to sustain themselves from the sale of the products. (I bought a tote bag from one of the merchants that I still use for some of my knitting supplies!) Outside Garbage City, there is a huge outdoor church carved out of a cliff in honor of Simon the Tanner. Two little girls followed us around and then we were also joined by a bunch of other kids wanting to have their pictures taken. So I took their pictures with my digital camera and showed them to the kids – much to their delight.

And of course, no trip to Cairo is complete without a visit to the Great Pyramids. As we walked the area, taking pictures (I really wanted my own camel-in-front-of-the-pyramids photo!), a self-appointed entrepreneur told us about a little extra tour he could take us on to see some newly excavated grave sites with sarcophaguses and mummies. He began his pitch by offering to take a photo of me “touching” a pyramid. We followed him for a while but eventually decided the whole pitch was something of a scam to make money, but I still had my photo!


One more trip to tell about in a future post – to Indonesia in 2007

Stories from Around the World, Part 1

MCC LogoFor 19 years from 1989-2008, I served on the board of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S., the last nine years as the chair. I thoroughly enjoyed my years on the board of an agency I highly respect. As a board member, I had the opportunity to travel a number of times to some of the countries around the world where MCC works. I was able to observe first-hand the effective work MCC does to “share God’s love and compassion for all in the name of Christ by responding to basic human needs and working for peace and justice.” Here are some excerpts from stories I wrote from my travels, in chronological order (more to come tomorrow):

Bolivia and Brazil, 1991: I traveled with a study group of about 12 people to learn about MCC’s work in Bolivia and Brazil and to understand some of the systemic and practical economic and political issues facing people living in these countries. While our group was in Bolivia, several of us went about 120 miles out of Santa Cruz, where MCC is headquartered in Bolivia, to the small remote town of El Carmen. The trip itself was memorable because of the road conditions caused by recent heavy rain. Our Land Rover had to negotiate muddy roads, and finally we had to get out and walk the last eight miles (well, I got lucky and was offered a motorcycle ride by a villager for the last few miles!).


Bolivian women who look very much like
the women I met at the cooperative
(Photo by MCC)

The next morning three of us rode bicycles out to a village about six miles away to visit a women’s cooperative where the women managed their own fields of rice and beans. We enjoyed a meal of rice, bean burgers, a bean salad and a bean-based drink all made from the harvest of those fields. As I visited with these women, I passed around pictures of my family I had brought with me; one grandmother spent a long time studying and caressing a formal wallet-size portrait of my (then) 18-year-old daughter.

There was such a contrast between their lives and mine. Comparing my access to food, clothing, housing and health care with theirs, it seemed clear that my life is much better. I couldn’t help feeling, however, that these women had a strength of character I don’t have. When we left, they thanked us profusely for coming, but I wanted to thank them for opening themselves to me and allowing me to share their lives, however briefly. Another six-mile bike ride over sandy roads took us back to town, and the next morning we returned to Santa Cruz, this time bouncing over headache-producing washboard roads. But even the rough ride couldn’t erase the memory of those women who seemed strengthened rather than diminished by the hard work they do and the harsh conditions under which they live.

Zambia, 1992: This was my first trip back to Zambia since I had left as a 13-year-old in 1961, so I felt a lot of nostalgia revisiting the places I had lived and gone to school. Driving onto the grounds of the boarding hostel in Choma where I spent three years, I was surprised that I had a recurrence of that same sick feeling in the pit of my stomach I had at the beginning of every term when my parents brought me back to school. Lots of memories came flooding back.

The reason for my trip to Zambia, however, was not to walk down memory lane but to accompany and assist a videographer hired by MCC. Zambia and other areas in southern Africa were experiencing the effects of a severe drought in 1992, and MCC had sent food and seeds to help Zambians survive the drought until the rains started again and be able to plant new crops. The videographer and I were there to document how the Zambian church was coping with the drought. I learned a lot about the making of a video and thought about various related issues:

  • The clash between technology and underdeveloped countries. I felt a clear sense of incongruity between the high level of technology represented by the video camera and the cattle-drawn or human-driven plows which prepared Zambia fields for planting by hand.
  • The need for lots and lots of footage for one short video. We filmed many interviews – with farmers, pastors, church officials, doctors, nurses, organization officials; we filmed food and seed distribution, plowing and planting, women going about their daily chores, church services, eating, socializing. Plus we filmed context-setting footage, including a gorgeous complete double rainbow arching the evening sky that seemed like a symbol of hope in the midst of desperate conditions. All told, the videographer used up 12 hours of video tape in order to put together a 16-minute finished product (and yes, it was video tape – this was before digital video recorders!).
  • The tension between getting pictures that tell the whole story and exploiting people’s pain in the process. I asked myself various questions: How do you adequately convey the truth about people’s lives in a situation of drought without showing pictures of that truth? On the other hand, is it right to invade their privacy as human beings in order to tell the story we want to tell? Most of the time, the tension wasn’t too severe because our assignment was to tell a story of hope, and it was easy enough to find the hope and resiliency in the Zambia people we met, photographed and interviewed.

Cars from before the revolution were common, having been repaired over and over again. We traveled in this one to attend a service at the Cuatros Caminos Brethren in Christ Church.

Cuba, 1998: I traveled to Cuba with a delegation from MCC to learn about the reality of life in Cuba and to advocate for an end to the United States’ embargo against that country. In addition to visiting Brethren in Christ and Mennonite churches in Cuba and being encouraged by their faithfulness in difficult circumstances, our delegation met with people from social service and religious agencies, government representatives, and an official from the United States Interests Section (the U.S. has no embassy since we don’t have diplomatic relations with Cuba).


Political slogans like this were everywhere!

It was very difficult to sort out the different perspectives we heard and to make sense of all the contradictions. When we met with the head of the Cuban Council of Churches, he commented, “The United States ideology needs an enemy,” and then went on to note that right then Cuba was the necessary enemy. We also met with an official at the U.S. Interests Section who told us he had to “psychologically divorce himself from the Cuban people’s lives.” We assumed he meant it would be difficult for him to do his job if he learned to know the Cubans as individual people or as friends. That struck me as an interesting and somewhat disturbing tactic, whatever the reason. Our last appointment before leaving the island was with two government officials. They told us, “We have no secrets; you can ask us anything.” Then they proceeded with a monologue for half an hour. At the end, they spoke of their desire for normal relations with the U.S. and said, “The only condition for dialogue and negotiations with the U.S. is that there be no conditions, but that we be able to speak together as equals.” I couldn’t help wishing we could all do that.

More stories to come from my travels to Southeast Asia, Zimbabwe, Palestine and Egypt, and Indonesia.