I went to Cuba about 20 years ago, and stayed for a week.
My welcome to Cuba was a threat from an armed guard that they would send us back home. I almost believed, at that moment, it would be for the best, but I persisted in convincing him that someone important was waiting for us beyond the wall. Later we found out they were excited by the packs of crayons that the x-ray machines picked up in our luggage– school supplies for our guests– that looked too much like ammo to eyes not accustomed to seeing neat boxes of crayons. The medicines we brought with us were most likely the deal closer.
I went out into the small villages, I visited their clinics, spoke with their doctors, walked newly-paved streets with bright curbs that merely delineated one parcel of hovels from another. Once, I slept in the only bed in the house of my guests. I have no idea where they slept that night. I washed myself from a basin on a pile of bricks in a cement block pile enclosure. I met hundreds of Cubans, spoke with them, ate with them, sang for them, prayed with them.
It’s been around 20 years since I left, weeping bitterly that I had to, so hard had I fallen in love with Cuba. The land is so fertile that the fence posts bloom, but there was no food to eat. The despair is as thick as the wafting smoke from their marijuana, and drowned in their rum. There is nothing to do so people marry, divorce, bed-hop, play dominoes, watch television in black and white, smoke, argue, and tell jokes. They told the best jokes about Castro, all of which escape me since I had to translate for others the entire trip. It makes for such a blur of memories that only impressions or singular moments stand out: a glass of agua ardiente with the local clinic’s doctor who seemed hopeful for more visits such as ours, a stroll through a garden, a mentally disabled child in a battered metal crib in a dank concrete room– a “home” for such; singing hymns for a crowd of people crammed into a small house in La Havana, filling the porch, spilling out into the street and other porches; an old woman with tears in her eyes, grabbing my arm, thanking me, thanking God for me, for my small gift of my voice opening up the big Gift of God’s love for Cuba.
How my heart breaks for them, knowing what full-on freedom would do to these children– for they are, in effect, all children now– if that day ever comes. Six generations of poverty, malnutrition, stunted education and isolation are not overcome in a moment of release. To think for oneself is a privilege never allowed them. They might still need a father-dictator, unfortunately, just a better one than Castro. But that was twenty-odd years ago, in far-flung villages. Havana’s elites and streets are still a wild mixture of anger, hope, and caution. The gulags are not yet full.