I have been blessed with the opportunity to visit Cuba on two occasions: the first in 2000 on a mission trip with a Baptist church and the second last September with a Witness for Peace delegation. On both visits, I have witnessed Cuban people suffering because of the U.S. embargo combined with stifled dissent and socialist economics. Basic goods are unattainable. The cars in Cuba, which are vintage remnants from the mid-1900’s and are beloved by tourists, have been kept running by savvy Cubans who are surviving under an economic system that is unable to keep up with the pace of development in the rest of the world. I witnessed this type of resilience of the Cuban people during both my trips. Living under the U.S. embargo has, out of necessity, created an ingenuity among Cubans, and many have faith that Cubans can ultimately improve their lot even within a defective system that makes daily survival an ordeal.
I did, however, see many improvements within the country on my second visit in comparison with my first visit. The opening of Cuba under President Obama led to a freer flow of goods, communication, and acquisition of information, even while tensions remained concerning human rights. For example, the private sector had grown dramatically, fueled by unlimited remittances from the United States. During my first visit to Cuba we had to stay in government-owned hotels, eat at government-owned restaurants, and use government-owned taxis (although there did exist private citizens who were utilizing their homes as restaurants and their cars as taxis, but that had to be done most discreetly as it was against the law). On my second visit, Airbnb had opened in Cuba, and Cubans no longer had to rely solely on the state to make a living; rather, they could legally operate businesses and act as entrepreneurs. Likewise, on my second visit to Cuba, there was broader access to the internet, including Wi-Fi and Google. This access to information is greatly important for quality of life (many people have relatives in the United States they want to be able to contact easily and cheaply) and for improving human rights.
Recently, President Trump announced a series of changes to U.S. policy toward Cuba, including a rollback of an Obama-era opening of diplomatic relations and a tightening of some restrictions that had previously been eased. While the new changes don’t entirely restrict travel, they do make it much more difficult. For example, American tourists have been able to travel to Cuba on their own via what’s known as individual “people-to-people” educational trips (which is the visa I used for my second trip), but they will now have to qualify for a visa under one of 12 authorized travel categories, which will be severely limited and rigorously enforced. This enforcement means that U.S. travelers now must stay at hotels owned by the Cuban military and must document all their activities (documentation which was handled by Witness for Peace on my second visit). If people are staying in military-owned hotels, it makes sense that they will also eat at military-owned restaurants and shop at military-owned stores, thus hurting ordinary Cubans trying to operate small businesses.
The obstacles that these new policies will create not only disadvantage Cuban small business owners, but also the church. Protestant churches in Cuba have slowly been growing since the Cuban government began loosening restrictions on practicing religion in the country. About 60 percent of Cuba’s 11 million people are baptized Catholics. There are 40,000 Methodists, 100,000 Baptists, and 120,000 members of the Assemblies of God. About 25,000 evangelical and other Protestant houses of worship are located across the country. Cuba could provide a huge opportunity for the church to grow the mission field, but instead these restrictions will increase costs and create obstacles for churches seeking to travel to Cuba for evangelistic and humanitarian purposes. Paula Clayton Dempsey, Director of Partnership Relations for the Alliance of Baptists and a Council of Churches board member, stated, “As people of faith, we dissent the policy announcement, and commit to our ongoing relationship with our partners in Cuba, and to the continual petitioning of Congress to end all oppressive travel and trade restrictions.”
As Christians, we believe in a citizenship in heaven that transcends any national boundary. We are called to stand beside our brothers and sisters who are vulnerable due to economic and political policies. We can support Cubans, not just with our prayers and financial support but by letting our legislators know how we feel about policies that hurt the Cuban people. I hope that you will join me in doing what the Cuban people cannot — raising your voice on their behalf and contacting your legislators and the White House to tell them that you support continued U.S. engagement with Cuba. Travel and trade with Cuba not only benefit major industries and job creators in the United States and allow American citizens their right to travel to Cuba, but also help to improve the lives of the Cuban people. The U.S. embargo on Cuba has failed to accomplish its intended goal of punishing the Cuban government but has instead hurt both the Cuban and the American people by restricting basic rights and freedoms.