In September, I had an opportunity to travel to Cuba with Witness for Peace as part of a delegation focused on “Faith, Politics, Economics, and Changing U.S.-Cuban Relations.” There I witnessed many things. I saw a fantastic healthcare system and an educational system that provided for everyone. I met with some amazing people of faith who had remained steadfast even while religion was outlawed, church property was seized, and Christians were not allowed to be in any sort of profession with influence (especially influence over children). I also visited local churches which are doing great work in their community by filling in gaps that government services are unable to provide (especially for an aging population, many of whose families left the country years ago, and who are now alone and in need of social support).
I also saw people with a great love for Fidel. We met with a group of older women from Ebenezer Baptist Church who could speak of how much their lives improved because of the Revolution. Everywhere we went ,people spoke of El Comandante with respect and admiration. However, after Fidel’s death this week, I also saw the celebration of Cuban-Americans rejoicing in the death of the powerful dictator; people rejoicing in the streets that the leader who had violated human rights and forced so many to flee their own country was finally gone.
To me, speaking as an outsider, this is one example of the contradictions of Cuban society. While all countries have contradictions, Cuba is very particular in its dichotomies. For example, a Cuban can get a fantastic education for free and become a doctor, but then garner more income as a taxi cab driver, so they leave their chosen profession. Castro was loved by some and hated by many. However, I do hope his death can be an opportunity for freedom and democracy to emerge on the island.
President Obama has taken some large strides to normalize relations between Cuba and the United States; however, only Congress can lift the embargo (or blockade, as Cubans call it). The embargo is wrong for many reasons. First, it is immoral because it causes innocent people to suffer in both countries. In Cuba, millions of people are denied access to food, pharmaceuticals, and other critical goods. U.S. citizens are denied access to cutting-edge medicines produced in Cuba. Furthermore, the embargo is unnecessary because Cuba is no longer a threat to the international community. It is hypocritical because we have opened or expanded economic relations with countries that are much more hostile toward the U.S. and/or more aggressive to their own citizens than Cuba is. And, finally, public opinion polls show that the embargo continues to be unpopular among Americans and other nations.
I hope that the next administration will realize that improving relations between the United States and Cuba only improves the quality of life for both Cubans and Americans. Moreover, it improves the life of the church. Many churches have begun to reinvest in mission efforts as restrictions have slowly been lifted, meaning that Cuba offers a huge opportunity for the mission field to improve the vitality and diversity of the church. For me, an outsider who has had the opportunity to travel twice to Cuba with the church, my desire is that Fidel’s death may serve as a reminder for everyone to pray for freedom, including religious freedom, for the long-oppressed Cuban people.