Monday, June 11, 2018

Keelin Anderson: Highlights from the 2018 ESR Contextual Theology Intensive to Cuba

ESR MDiv student Keelin Anderson offers the following on her recent travel as part of ESR's Contextual Theology Intensive to Cuba May 20th-28th, 2018:

Living in Cuba

My dorm room in the Centro Martin Luther King (CMLK) in Marianao, Havana, was surprisingly comfortable, with AC and a bathroom with shower. Things do not work the same in Havana as in Portland, OR, where I live. Due to the US Blockade of trade with Cuba, Cubans have limited access to many basic aspects of life that I take for granted. Most of the toilets we found did not have seats, presumably because they wore out 20 years ago and could not be replaced. At times we had to go without napkins and toilet paper. The water is not as clean as in the US. We were told to avoid consuming the water (including ice in beverages, teeth brushing, and fresh veggies or fruit). This was not only impossible to do, but confusing as we were told everywhere we went that the water and food was safe. I think most of us got sick at some point during the week, a few severely.

We were treated to the best food both at the CMLK and at several private restaurants. I understood that the average Cuban could not afford to eat at these restaurants. Each Cuban has a ration book to buy food but the monthly allowance is not enough. The most one could hope to make at a job was about $900/mo, but over 50% of Cubans earn less than $100/mo and food is expensive. Cuban housing, health care, and education are provided by the government. We saw some Cubans with smart phones but it was hard to tell how many used them as wi-fi is not widely available and the internet is slow with low band-width.

Breakfast was eggs, mango, pineapple, watermelon, cereal, kefir, and fruit juice. Coffee was the best I have had (and I live where gourmet coffee is available on every block). Lunch and dinner were mango, papaya (called “frutabomba” as “papaya” is slang for the female genitals), pineapple; salad of shredded cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes; moros y cristianos (“moors and christians” - black beans and white rice) and “tostones” (fried unripe plantain - like a french fry disk); cooked protein of tuna, sea bass, chicken, pork, or beef, and at one restaurant amazing shredded lamb. Dessert consisted of flan, various cakes, cheese & jam, or ice cream. Coffee after every meal. Surprisingly, though they have a lot of banana trees and coconut palms around, we were not served these very often. Drinks were fruit juice, soda, bottled water, and yummy mojitos.

Most Cubans cannot afford to have a car. We saw a lot of people waiting for and packed into buses. On the city streets and highway I saw horse carts and motored carts with people riding in the back, a few bicycles and motorcycles, along with a small variety of Russian, Korean, and old American cars. Pedestrians and motor vehicles share the streets and highway with marked nonchalance. The colorful American cars from the 50s, mostly taxis, that are an iconic Havana sight are a part of the tourist industry, one of the few areas of the economy that has resources to maintain vehicles and buildings.

We traveled around in a trusty old tour bus, with opaque windows and a leaky roof, but a reliable engine, tires, and an utterly unflappable driver, José.


We met with Raúl Suárez, the founder and director of the CMLK (Top: from left to right, Polo, our outstanding translator who sounds just like Ricardo Montalban from Fantasy Island; Raúl; Carmen, our excellent guide; and Karla, ESR graduate extraordinaire).  Raúl explained that after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the government saw the Church as unnecessary to the revolutionary process. He asserted that religion was not persecuted so much as put under ideological pressure such that many pastors left Cuba. In the 1970s and 1980s the government’s attitude towards religion gradually shifted, aided by the introduction of Liberation Theology to Cuba. The CMLK is funded by the government to promote a “Cuban Theology of Liberation” through various social and educational programs, ultimately to sow revolutionary values of sovereignty, solidarity, and equality. The majority of churches in Cuba are in partnership with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which limits the ordination of women and LGBTQ+ inclusion. The church at the CMLK was expelled from the SBC because they ordained women. The CMLK church is also welcoming to people of all sexual orientations and genders.

We also spoke with a Quaker pastor named Kirenia Criado (Bottom: center). Quakers in Cuba are evangelical, due to their missionary inspired roots, and are concentrated in the eastern part of the country. Kirenia is a third generation Quaker who through her schooling, ended up in Havana in the west. Bringing the small Quaker population in Havana together proved to be a challenge as they were all from different Quaker churches in the east and had different ideas about worship and what it meant to be a Quaker. She brought them together by having them study Quaker history and read the classic Quakers (facilitated by some New England Quakers’ translation of some texts for Cubans). The result of this study is that Havana Quakers are the most “Quaker-like” of Cuban Quakers, specifically non-hierarchical with shared ministry.

We learned about Afro-Cuban religion at a museum devoted to Cuba’s African heritage located in old Havana. The African religions brought with the slaves to Cuba were severely repressed through most of Cuba’s history due to whites’ fears of a black revolution like occurred in nearby Haiti. The thousands of tribes in Africa (80 or so of which are represented in Cuba) communicated through drumming, as they spoke different languages. These various drum rhythms form the base for the unique beats of Cuban music.

The Catholic church was active in repressing Afro-Cuban religion. Many of the Catholic symbols and rites are superimposed over the African ones. At first this was to provide a Catholic cover for Afro-Cuban religious practice to continue in secret. Later this evolved into a syncretic modern religion that uses both African and Catholic traditions together in their worship.

Cubans are experts at survival and creatively making due with what they have. The white land-owners took away the Africans’ drums so they beat anything they could find, including produce boxes. The Cajon, pictured above under the drummer, is the modern instrument evolved out of those boxes. This drummer did fabulous solos all night slapping and beating the Cajon between his legs at light-speed.

The pinnacle of Santeria, the evolved form of the Afro-Cuban religion, is the Santero, or priest. The Santero traditionally wears beads around his neck to signify which Orisha, or god, he divines with. In Cuba they did not have access to beads so they used what they had, in this case, twisted electrical wire, to make their Orisha necklaces.

I came across a snapshot of the Cuban version of colonial-inspired racism and cultural appropriation in a book I took along on the trip: Island People: The Caribbean and the World by Joshua Jelly-Shapiro. During the 1930s, under Geraldo Machado, fear of black revolt in Cuba took the form of repressing Afro-Cuban gatherings. The then white governor of Santiago, Desiderio Arnaz, enacted that policy by banning conga dancing and drumming. Conga was an Afro-Cuban religious celebration carried out in the streets on feast days. Some believe the steps of the dance, where people follow each other in a line lifting their feet to the side, developed when slaves were chained together. When Arnaz was chased out of Cuba after Machado’s ouster from the presidency, he went to Miami. His son, Desi, later married Lucille Ball and made it rich introducing conga dancing to hoards of drunk white Americans.

Socialism and the US Blockade

This is Dr. Lesbia Cánovas whom we met in her clinic on the bottom floor of her home. She is responsible 24/7 for the basic medical care of a little over 1000 residents in the 4 block radius of her clinic. She is given 4 weeks of vacation a year, in two, two-week periods. She has been running her home clinic for 30 years. Her clinic is the bottom tier of Cuban health care. Cuba is able to manufacture some of their own drugs but many medications, especially cancer drugs, are not available.

Both medical care and education are free to all in Cuba regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. The government will pay for medication and surgery for transgender folks. For people who complete a university degree, they “pay it back” by three years of working where the government needs them. This may or may not be in the field they trained in. In general I gathered that Cubans are highly educated but unable to enact their full potential due to the poverty induced by America’s senseless continuation of the blockade.

¡Viva la Revolución!

I began to think that “revolutionism” for Cuba is their central ideology much like “individualism” is ours in the US. From government propaganda all the way down to the family and citizen, we wrestle, both consciously and unconsciously, with what these ideologies actually mean in relation to claiming our national heritages. In America, some of us use individualism to blame poor people (often of color) for their poverty (under the myth of equal opportunity) while others use it to claim liberation of self-expression for gender and sexuality.

In Cuba, the ideals of revolution are traced to José Martí (1853-1895). Revolution Square, pictured above (with the head of Ché on the top and a statue of Martí on the bottom under the tower), was actually designed before Castro’s takeover in 1959 but not completed until after the revolution. The ideals of revolution in Cuba are equality and solidarity, both among Cubans and with other colonized peoples (hence their assistance for revolutionaries in Africa and Latin America). This revolutionary ideal evolved from the fact that being Cuban means to be a descendant of Native Islanders, Spanish, Chinese, and Africans.

What brings these disparate ancestries together is what Martí called “cubanidad.” He wrote, “The rachitic thinkers and theorists juggle and warm over the library-shelf races, which the open-minded traveler and well-disposed observer seek in vain in Nature’s justice, where the universal identity of man leaps forth from triumphant love and the turbulent lust for life” (Jelly-Shapiro 133). To Martí, to be a revolutionary is to break through systems of inequality based on race and class that are sold as natural and normal; and, to be Cuban is to come together in love and life.

How “revolution” plays out in Cuba today is complicated. The US embargo, established in 1960 after Castro’s government nationalized American oil refineries in Cuba, puts substantial pressure on countries around the world that trade with America to not trade with Cuba. This contributed to Cuba’s primary reliance on the Soviet Union for trade. When the Soviet Union fell in 1989, Cuba was essentially abandoned economically. This is referred to as the “Special Period.” There was no food because to please the Soviet Union Cuba had put its agricultural resources into sugar production. There was no electricity because gas came from the Soviets. Cubans gathered around the homes of those who had batteries that could be charged on the two hours of electricity available each day to refrigerate food stores. They ate whatever they had, a lot of yams and even the peels of bananas.

The Cubans who were born before the Special Period see this time as a triumph of the revolution in that because the Cuban people were used to the ethic of solidarity, they came together to survive the Special Period and no one starved. The youth, born during the Special Period, take their free health care and education, products of the revolution, for granted. They just remember scarcity and see the government limiting their freedom of movement and individual achievement. Now they see on social media all the things they do not have. Many of them dream of leaving.

One heart-opening wonder of “revolutionism” may be the Cuban people’s ability to enact equality perhaps more swiftly than other countries. We met Ramón Silverio, pictured with Polo above, in his social club, “El Mejunje.” El Mejunje means “broth” as in you put all different meats and veggies in the pot and they combine to make a delicious soup.

In 1984, Silverio started El Mejunje in Santa Clara as a place where all people could come together in safety and acceptance. At the time there was no acceptance for homosexuality and the government had a history of persecuting sexual minorities. Silverio took an acting group all around Cuba to teach, through entertainment, acceptance of gays, lesbians, and trans people. Now El Mejunje has different shows and music every day of the week for different audiences. LGBTQ+ folks, young and old, and all colors of people now come to the club. Elderly ladies come for the traditional Cuban music and to maybe find a date. Teens come for electronica. Middle aged het/cis men and women come for rock & roll, and Silverio says Saturday is the gayest night of the week with modern Cuban music.

This is the last picture I took, from the bus as we left a fancy Jazz restaurant. It struck me as a visual metaphor for the Cuban people. A dark skinned woman looks out from behind bars at the white Americans exiting a restaurant in her neighborhood where she cannot afford to eat. 

Keelin Anderson joined ESR as an MDiv Access student in the spring of 2016. She spent the spring 2018 semester on campus as a residential student. Keelin lives in Portland, OR, where she attends Multnomah Monthly Meeting (North Pacific Yearly Meeting). She holds a BA from Reed College and a BS from Oregon Health Sciences University. 

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