Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #104. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Mar, 2, 2016; in print Mar. 6

A month ago my wife and I spent two weeks in Cuba on an educational tour.  Having discovered repeatedly over the years that Mark Twain is right —“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” — I was already conjuring ways to convey our surprise at what we were seeing, the people we were meeting, the reality that is so different from what we, as Americans, had expected.

Then, shortly after we got home, Cuba was in the headlines as a place President Obama will visit this month, the first sitting U.S. president to do so since Calvin Coolidge 88 years ago.

And, just as I was about to start writing, I saw this headline in the Feb. 27 Times: “Emmer: Drop the Cuba trade embargo.”  Our 6th District representative is trying to persuade his Republican colleagues to rescind one of the most wrong-headed and ineffective policies of the last half-century.

Obama’s visit confirms symbolically what has been achieved diplomatically by the reopening of embassies in Havana and Washington.  Emmer’s legislative initiative demonstrates that obstruction, while still the main attraction, isn’t the only congressional game in town.  Both reinforce what I want to say: Let’s get to know the Cubans, let’s interact with them, let’s cut through the decades of misinformation and, even worse, no information.

Cubans are resilient, entrepreneurial, proud.

For evidence of resilience, you need look no further than what comes to mind for most of us when we hear “Havana” — the old cars.  Yes, we had a ride in a 1950 Chevy convertible — a car 66 years old, running well.  The cars, abandoned by wealthy Cubans who fled to Miami in 1959, have been maintained without any recourse to spare parts from their American manufacturers.  Just imagine the ingenuity required to keep these vehicles functioning over all the decades!

And resilience was demonstrated by the nation’s weathering what they call “the special period” — the decade of the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The Cubans learned the jeopardy of too exclusive dependence on one ally.

It’s not quite that simple, however.  Plenty of other countries have no quarrel with Cuba, but American pressure to abide by our embargo forestalled help they might have been able to give.  Though we call it an embargo, American influence around the world makes it into what, from the Cuban perspective, is a blockade.

We saw entrepreneurship everywhere.   Our trip covered much of the country (it’s half the size of Minnesota), cities of various sizes and rural areas (there are nine million Cubans in addition to the two million who live in Havana).  A figure Rep. Emmer cites corresponds to what we heard several times: the economy is now roughly 60 percent controlled by the government and 40 percent privately owned businesses.

A major sector of the private economy is tourism, particularly restaurants.  One owner/chef, who served a meal as fine as you could wish for, ran afoul of government regulations in 2002, went to Paris and then Boston, picked up new culinary skills, and now, back in Cuba, is helping chart a different future for his country.

And the Cubans are proud.  Proud that in a one-year project in 1961 literacy jumped from about 65 percent to near 100 percent, where it remains.  Proud that almost everyone in the country has a post-secondary degree.  Proud that their health care system has some of the best outcome statistics of any in the world — and their doctors and nurses are in many countries doing what we would call mission work.  Indeed, one of the most disheartening stories we heard was about our government’s refusal to accept Cuba’s offer of medical assistance at the time of Hurricane Katrina.

Emmer says he is leading the effort in Congress to drop the embargo because he wants to “restore our relationship with the Cuban people.”  Yes, that’s it — the Cuban people want to be our friends.

When we Americans (at least of my generation) think “Cuba,” the first thing we see is Fidel Castro.  I’m pretty sure he isn’t as bad as our government has portrayed him, but whatever his sins and virtues, he doesn’t loom nearly as large in Cuban consciousness today as I expected.  I thought we’d see pictures and statues of him everywhere, but there are very few.

What most surprised — and embarrassed — me was this.  The person universally revered, whose statue is the pride of every town and whose memorial is the centerpiece of the national cemetery, is someone I’d never heard of.  José Martí (1853-95) was a champion of Cuba’s independence from Spain (achieved in 1902, seven years after his death), an essayist and poet of world-class distinction, and a passionate believer in intercultural understanding.  The Cuba of today, with its many cultural and ethnic communities living in remarkable harmony, is testimony to Martí’s vision and influence.

My ignorance of Martí was like that of a visitor to the United States who’s never heard of George Washington.  Along with dropping the embargo, I recommend we all learn about the Cubans’ hero.  In Havana’s Museum of the Revolution a bust of Martí gazes across the atrium at one of Abraham Lincoln.