Gene and Linda Bryant wrote:
Very early on Monday, April 9, 2012 a dozen “pilgrims” with Plymouth connections boarded the first of three flights on our way to Havana, Cuba. We were a delegation of Witness for Peace, a 25 year old organization that works to foster positive relations in Latin America. Some of us knew each other and some of us knew no one else in the group, so building relationships within our group was part of the journey. That proved to be a wonderful part of our trip! We were met by Diego, Alex and Rita who would be our companions during our stay. We had prepared for our trip by reading a number of articles provided by WFP about relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Cuban health care and education systems, social issues, politics and coming changes, the Cuban Five and Alan Gross, sustainable agriculture and the Arts and Culture of Cuba.
We soon found ourselves immersed in the city of Habana (the Cuban spelling!) as we traveled to the Old City, agricultural sites, health care facilities, artistic enclaves and offices. We heard and absorbed everything we could from pastors, historians, publishers, doctors, health care administrators, “dreamers”, our American “Special Interests” personnel, small farmers, coop leaders, billboards and observation as we traveled on our school bus with “U.S. end the embargo with Cuba” and “U.S. Cuba Friendshipment” on its sides. We enjoyed the gracious hospitality of the staff at the Martin Luther King Center, the Presbyterian Church of Los Palos, a town of 2,000, and the Social Services Educational Center in Veredaro, a tourist area with a lovely beach.
I have never been immersed in such a way before—in a culture which was/is still a mystery, where I do not speak the language, but where I felt the warmth of the people in encounters deep and shallow. That was an unforgettable experience!
It is hard to distill what I learned, but several things stand out at this still very close in point:
If human rights mean education, health care, food and shelter then Cuba is not guilty of human rights violations.
The Cuban people are very inventive and self-reliant. When faced with a shortage of food and lacking the ability to import food or the fuel for ag machines, they turned to organic farming techniques and oxen to supply what they needed. They keep 1960s era vehicles running, including buses.
Despite limited (by our standards) medical supplies and facilities, life expectancy equals ours and infant mortality rate is lower than ours. They rely on education, vaccinations, and local clinics to prevent many medical problems, and use alternative medical techniques such as acupuncture, massage and herbal medicines to supplement more traditional medicine. Doctors do transplants and provide training and outreach programs to poorer countries.
The people want the embargo (they call it a blockade) to end; I can’t figure out what good outcome (for either nation) can come from keeping it in place. Any ship stopping in Cuba cannot come to the U.S. for six months—our rule. There are many more like that. After 53 years, what do we fear from Cuba?
The “small” changes made by the Obama administration (allowing Cuban-Americans to send money to family in Cuba and making more visits to family possible) have made a tremendous difference to families in Cuba.
On the refrigerator of the Pastor in Los Palos was a 4×6 magnet photo of President Obama and the word “HOPE.”
Imagine, if you can, what life would be like in Iowa if we were cordoned off from the rest of the U.S. and much of the rest of the world by another entity who disapproves of our way of governing. And that entity keeps us isolated for 53 years, continuing to do so until we agree to a governing style of their design. We have no oil or gasoline with which to run our big farm equipment and our cars so they would soon be parked. We do not manufacture medicines. Let your imagination go and you will understand better how Cubans live. Add to that limited access to information via the press, internet, Facebook and TV. Add limited access to your family in Minnesota or Nebraska. Would you be praying for a change of heart on part of the interfering body? Would you be asking others to work for that change? That is what I believe we are called to do as we return with hearts filled with the joy and hospitality of our brothers and sisters in Cuba!
Now that we are several months past our trip, the journey continues as we explore how we can direct our knowledge, our energy and our commitment to positive outcomes. We struggle with advocacy (public support for or recommendation of a particular change of policy such as allowing use of credit to obtain food or medicine and medical equipment) versus direct, short-term action (such as contributions of clothing, medicine, bringing Cuban youth here for World Food Prize events) as our focus. We have not yet made a decision about this, but we are committed to encouraging other groups to visit Cuba and to try to get permission for Cuban groups to come here. We are committed to work toward the easing of embargo restrictions, if not the total lifting of the embargo itself. We are inspired by the “We are in this together” spirit of the Cuban people and chafe at the divisiveness in our country. And we celebrate the life-widening experience we share because of our “trip-become-journey.”