Posted April 27, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Travel.
In the courtyard of the Dr. Martin Luther King Center in Havana, run by Ebenezer Baptist Church, are, front row from left, Dr. Ann Quattlebaum, Dr. Vic Greene and Dr. Linda Bartlett; back row from left, Kat Garber, Donte Stewart, Bailey Edwards, Emily Posey, Chris Cox, Diane Goudelock, Tatiana Clay and Ryan Chandler.
Ninety miles off the coast of Florida lies a gradually unfolding mystery.
Despite a travel and trade embargo against Cuba since 1961, Greenvillians have been finding ways to visit through educational, humanitarian and religious channels. And the culture they’ve found has drawn them back again and again to the communist island.
“Even though they live under a government situation I could not tolerate,” said four-time traveler Sue Poss, “they have found a way to live in a true sense of community. I’ve seen them sharing medicine, food, whatever they have that somebody needs.”
Two of Poss’ trips have been with the Alliance of Baptists, a moderate Baptist organization that established a partnership with the Fraternity of Baptist Churches of Cuba in 1991 and has paired 25 American churches with sister Cuban congregations.
It is through Alliance relationships, in fact, that many Greenvillians have made their connections. Greenville First Baptist Church has run several trips and has another planned after Christmas.
Furman University Chaplain Jim Pitts got Alliance’s help in setting up an exploratory trip in 2000. Now the university runs a summer faculty seminar and a 10-day trip for sophomores exploring theological vocation.
But a major reason for the island’s popularity is that it smacks of the forbidden, said Bill Drury.
Drury has made four photography trips to Cuba, two as director of Greenville Technical College’s Photo Imaging Center before the school canceled plans to offer workshops there. Americans want to go, he said, precisely because they can’t hop on a Delta jet and do it.
“That, and it’s not completely Americanized yet,” he said. “As soon as that embargo goes away, Cuba will go away.”
Cuba under Castro
But the ease of backdoor travel may end before that.
The Cuban government rounded up 75 to 100 dissidents in March, and by mid-April, sentenced many to lengthy prison sentences. Three men were executed for hijacking a ferry in an attempt to escape.
President Bush is considering punishing steps beyond the embargo and is curbing educational contacts, reports The New York Times. Indeed, Francisco “Paco” Rodes of the Fraternity of Baptist Churches, scheduled to speak at Furman April 29 and at Greenville First Baptist April 30, only got his visa approved at the last minute.
Cuba native Cristina Schleifer, who now lives in Greenville, warns visitors about the side of Cuba they may not see. She returned to the island last summer for the first time in 40 years, and heard stories of despotism and deprivation from her relatives.
“When people go to Cuba and they see all this wonderful stuff, I want them to understand there’s also a very subtle oppression,” she said. “Don’t ever be fooled. This thing that Castro just did is proof of that.”
Cuba has been under the control of Fidel Castro since he led a rebel army to victory in 1959. For decades, the nation was closely allied with the Soviet Union and allowed the Soviets to place missiles there — a move that precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis and resulted in the death of Greenville U-2 pilot Maj. Rudolf Anderson Jr. as he was photographing the evidence.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, $4 billion in subsidies to Cuba disappeared, plunging the country into economic crisis.
Almost overnight, Castro’s government created a tourism industry in order to survive, said Dr. David Bost, co-director of Furman’s Lilly Center for the Theological Exploration of Vocation. European, South American and Canadian tourists are now common on the beaches, with armed soldiers making sure they’re not “bothered” by native Cubans.
American airlines, besides a few daily charter flights from Florida and Texas, don’t fly directly to Havana because of the embargo.
Still, as recently as early March, travelers said that obtaining educational or humanitarian licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department was easy. They flew from Greenville to Acapulco or Cancun or Jamaica, then connected to the island.
Once there, they found an economy based on the dollar and a warm welcome for Americans, said B.J. Nash, who went on a Greenville Tech trip. They also found a culture that both attracted and repelled them.
“I’m not going to be ignorant and say there isn’t suffering,” said recently returned Furman student Ryan Chandler, 19. “But they have a sense of vision and a gladness that supersedes and conquers their plight.”
College students, as well as many church groups, stay at the dormitory-style Martin Luther King Center run by Ebenezer Baptist Church. But Poss generally stays in churches and homes.
“Their infrastructure just isn’t there,” she said. “I was there once after a hurricane had destroyed a town’s water supply. A year later, they still didn’t have running water at the house where we stayed.”
Meanwhile, the country has been slowly opening to the outside world. The Discovery Channel commissioned an oceanographic ship to explore Cuban waters. The Pope visited in 1998, and former President Jimmy Carter in 2002. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford went when he was a congressman, and voiced support for taking another look at the embargo, said his press secretary Will Folks.
But Bush has said the embargo will remain until Cuba holds free elections, frees political prisoners and allows free opposition.
Furman student Donte Stewart, 19, finds that ironic.
“As American citizens, we have all these liberties, the freedom to go anywhere we want to go in the world,” he said. “Except Cuba.”
A flourishing Christianity
American Christians, in particular, are intrigued at the way Christianity has flourished in the communist nation.
Learning how and why is behind Greenville First Baptist’s upcoming trip, which, if allowed to go forward, will involve partnering and studying more than traditional evangelizing, said the Rev. Michelle McClendon, minister of Christian education.
“It’s a new way of looking at missions that is emerging in modern Baptist life,” she said.
Students, too, are generally on the receiving end of a life-transforming experience, said Dr. Ann Quattlebaum, Lilly Center coordinator. They visit Jewish synagogues that house medical clinics for entire communities, and tiny Baptist churches where parishioners stand outside open windows so their American guests can sit inside.
When the economy collapsed, Bost said, “the churches were actually a source of help for the government. They could take care of neighbors and poor people in ways the government could no longer do.”
Cubans “are not willing to let their neighbors suffer,” added Chandler. “I think they have suffered a lot from their government, and they’ve found solidarity in that.”
The new emphasis on tourism, say travelers, may be good for Cuba’s economy, but outsiders must be careful not to endanger Cubans. Photographer Drury told of looking at a native photographer’s work on the street, only to learn later that police had arrested him and confiscated his photos.
“We had to plead with police to tell them he wasn’t selling us anything,” Drury said.
Such disparities — or “tourist apartheid” — bothered Furman students.
“I was shocked when I found out our Cuban driver was not allowed to enter the hotels,” said Elaine Kelly, 21. “That left such a horrible taste in my mouth that I’ll never stay in one of those places.”
“There’s an economic apartheid on the island,” added native Schleifer. “People do not have access to the same things that tourists do, or that government officials do. There is a dark side that sometimes is not apparent.”
Still, Schleifer disagrees with the embargo because she thinks Castro has effectively wielded it as a tool to keep his people down. Many visitors return home in agreement.
“It’s not fulfilling its goal of breaking down communism,” said Kelly. “It’s just hurting the people by causing hunger and famine and lack of medicine.”
If, on the other hand, the embargo ends, sophomore Stewart fears Cuba may lose the uniqueness of its culture.
“I’m pretty sure the U.S. would go crazy like it does in every other country and there would be a McDonald’s and a Hyatt on every corner,” he said. “I wouldn’t want the U.S. to take advantage of Cuba and I wouldn’t want Cuba to fall into that commercialism.
“That’s the flip side of the embargo.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Deb Richardson-Moore can be reached at 298-4127.
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