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Thursday, Dec. 2, 2004 08:08 pm

Ten days in Cuba

Everywhere are fading reminders of the revolution that transformed Cuba

We are middle-class Americans from Springfield, Ill., coming to Cuba with pockets full of cash. We don't like the stereotype, but travel here is on a strictly cash basis.

In the Aeropuerto Internacional José Martí, I catch the eye of a slight, gray-haired, grandmotherly womanstanding just outside the restrooms. She holds a roll of toilet paper, and, as I approach, she measures off a few squares. We smile broadly at one another, and I feel brave enough to try my few words of Spanish. "Gracias, Señora," I say, and tip her a U.S. quarter. Another American scolds me -- a quarter is far too large a tip. But I will not be chastened. I'm a grandmother myself. As we leave customs, I see the señora wave goodbye.

We plan to spend as much time as possible outside Havana, visiting people and Presbyterian churches in the central provinces. We travel with what we hope are open minds and open ears. We'll return to Havana for our last two days in Cuba, but for now we head out into the countryside.

We leave Havana and its environs, which are thick with blossoming mango trees. We pass vegetable gardens, sugarcane fields, and orange groves lined with rock piles cleared from the reddish soil. Several miles farther along,we see neatly constructed stone walls bordering pastures holding herds of humpbacked gray Brahmin cattle. "When you see the rock wall," our driver says, "you know you are in Cuba's most productive cattle land, Matanzas Province."

We pass a woman, walking miles from nowhere, with heavy-looking tote bags hanging from both hands. She is wearing low heels, a long black skirt, and a silky dark blouse patterned with bright flowers. I look along the road for signs of bus routes or rest stops, but there are none.

Several more miles to the east, we see other signs of life along the same highway. Men wave three-foot "blankets" of large white and red-tinged onions and hunks of homemade white cheese, offering them for sale to the thin but steady stream of automobile traffic.

Economist Ruth Camps, who works for the Cuban Presbyterian Church, has joined us as historian and guide. We want to know how the U.S. economic embargo has affected the people of Cuba. Although the U.S. embargo was begun just after the revolution, Campscan't recall a crisis until the "special period" that began in 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's primary source of foreign aid. Worldwide oil shortages resulting from the Gulf War compounded the problems and disabled the last of Cuba's markets. There was no petroleum, no fertilizer, and no electricity anywhere on the island. Even for those who had money, there was nothing in the stores to buy. People began to starve, especially infants and the elderly.

With modern medicine no longer available, traditional folk remedies were rediscovered and used to treat toothaches, colds, respiratory illness, and other conditions. Campsrecalls scenes from her girlhood in the town of Camaguey, searching with her grandmother for wild plants they could use in place of soap.

Cuban-trained doctors had long been respected throughout the Western Hemisphere, but without medicine, electricity, and hospital equipment, even the best doctors had little to offer. And the doctors could not prescribe what was needed most: food.

The traditional Cuban diet consists of beans and rice with some beef, but with the embargo, the beef was gone. "The doctors told us that we shouldn't be eating beef so often," Campssays. "They told us it was dangerous. They distributed recipes that they said would make cereal taste like ground beef, and everyone went around saying that the doctors were crazy! We survived those difficult times by making everything into a joke -- we Cubans are very resilient -- and this made it easier to bear.

"It was particularly hard to know that we had a very good market only 90 miles away when we had no money and also to know that the U.S. government wouldn't allow any sales of products to Cuba," Campssays.

The original embargo of the 1960s was strengthened in 1990 by the Mack Amendment, which cut off foreign aid to any country daring to trade with Cuba. Two years later, in 1992, the even more restrictive Cuban Democracy Act further crippled the Cuban economy.

The Cuban government has tried various plans, such as exchanging doctors for oil with Venezuela, and reviving the tourism industry under strict government controls. But these desperate measures have come with their own tribulations. When the peso was the only currency, Cubans felt that the economic pressure burdened everyone equally. But tourism and the U.S. dollar are creating a two-tiered society. People with access to U.S. dollars have comforts that are unobtainable in the general economy. Prostitution and crime have increased, especially during the early and mid-1990s. "There is healthy tourism, tourism that wants to get to know Cuba," Campssays, "but then there is another tourism that just wants to come and have fun in Cuba and to entertain themselves."

The Cuban Federation of Women and the churches have begun reaching out to prostitutes, providing regular physical examinations, counseling, job training, and child care. As a result, reports Wayne S. Smith, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, prostitution is no longer any more of a problem in Cuba than it is anywhere else in the world, including the United States.

Camps'husband, Gerardo Figueroa Martin, is our bus driver and guide. Once a university computer-science instructor, Martin now works for the Cuban Presbyterian Church. And our bus? It is 14 years old but still dependable. Martin tells us he has named it the Alicia Alonso, after the Russian ballet dancer, famous in Cuba, who is now an active octogenarian.

The highway forks at Santa Clara. We turn right, toward Sancti Spiritus province. The landscape changes dramatically: To the left is a single high-bluffed hill resembling the core of a volcano, and we find ourselves traveling through a quiet valley filled with low knobby hills, ponds, and small lakes. I check my map and identify a distant mountain range as the Sierra del Escambray, where Che Guevara and his revolutionary soldiers hid in 1959. There they plotted the derailment of a military train in Santa Clara, an attack celebrated in song and story as the final blow in the defeat of the army of the dictator Fulgencio Batista.

A few evenings later, we burst out of a black, rainy night and into the blinding lights of TaguascoPresbyterian Church, greeted by music so loud and joyous that I think there must be some mistake. This can't be Presbyterian -- it must be Pentecostal!

After months of enduring red tape and bureaucratic directives and nearly two days of dealing with suspicious airport officials, baggage checks, and long security lines, we perch in the doorway of our bus, greeted and hugged by people whose language is hard to follow and whose forms and faces are obscured, silhouetted against the blazing lights of the church. Here we will attend our first worship service in Cuba: Taguasco Presbyterian Church's 62nd-birthday celebration.

The church is freshly painted in white and pale green. As we approach, we hear an electronic keyboard and the voices of the choir. The congregation joins in the joyful hymn. The members of our party scatter around the sanctuary. Bunches of lavender orchids decorate the ends of the pews. I find a seat about halfway back on the right -- the same place in which I sit when I'm in church at home -- occupied by three other women, all about my age.

"Aquí? Here?" I ask permission to join them. Their expressions mirror my feelings. There is so much I want to say, but I have no words with which to say it. My neighbor tries to explain all that is happening. Later she finds someone to translate. My new friend is not Presbyterian, the translator explains. She's afraid I'll be disappointed that she is Catholic.

My friend is relieved to hear that several Catholics attend my Presbyterian church back home. In Cuba, Protestantism has been ecumenical ever since the first Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians opened churches in 1883. More recently, ecumenism has expanded to include Catholics as well.

The choir sings at least eight hymns during the two-hour service, and the congregation sings four or five more. The children sing, too. Once the service is over, people bring us orchids in greeting and lead us to a room filled with wall-to-wall tables of desserts for the celebration.

The children are seated first, in the front. Next, while many of the older people remain standing, we visitors are seated and handed plates loaded with desserts and glasses of golden mango juice, fragrant as orange blossoms and honey. We taste sweet custards and fried dessert squares, cookies, and tall cakes frosted inches high in white boiled icing.

As I leave the worship service, I notice a short, thin older man hovering several feet away, too shy to approach. I smile and greet him as best I can: "Buenas noches, Señor. How are you? This church -- la iglesia es bella."

The man smiles and comes closer. He tells me that his name is Andres Correa, then gestures for me to follow him to find someone who can translate. He tells me that he is from this province and that he has attended the Taguasco church since he was a boy.

After several minutes, he blurts a message for us: "Please, Madam, please. Do not invade us!"

The generous welcome we receive at Taguasco cannot conceal the poverty that pervades rural Cuba. Life is harsh in the provinces, with less produce, fewer jobs, fewer ways to be involved in the tourist trade, and fewer family members who can make it to the United States to send back vital medicines, food, and American cash.

Many of the impoverished are elderly. The government's focus on building a tourism industry to salvage the Cuban economy has no place for senior citizens. Pensions are meager, and only those who have worked for the government during the Castro regime receive any pension at all. Families and neighbors who can barely sustain themselves stand between the elderly poor and starvation in a system labeled "parallel socialism" in which services are delivered laterally, from within society, rather than hierarchically, from the government.

Cuban churches are part of this parallel socialism, providing services the revolution promised a half-century ago. When we visit the Rev. Dalia Valdes Rodriguez and her small congregation at Placetas Presbyterian Church, we learn that the government has given them the names of 10 more neighbors in need of hot meals, laundry service, clothing repair, and in-home visits. Other programs at Placetas include communal vegetable and medicinal herb gardens and lessons in how to make a garden of one's own.

All the churches we visit support similar programs. At Sancti Spiritus Presbyterian, teenagers help wash clothing for the elderly poor during their regular public-service school holidays. A program to repair and patch clothing is managed by two sisters, who use an antique sewing machine left behind by their mother when she left for the States.

Funding these programs is a challenge. Some families donate their government milk rations to the church for the hot-lunch program. Others gather and donate any clothing and household items they can spare. Scrap cloth, thread and yarn are turned into embroidery and crochet projects that are sold at church fairs. At one church, as we visit over small cups of strong, sweet Cuban coffee and pineapple slices, a church member confides that in an effort to meet the needs of the elderly poor, the church has resorted to buying goods on the black market. We're warned to guard this information carefully lest the church suffer severe penalties for buying outside the government system.

I board the bus back to Havana feeling overwhelmed. Politics and poverty crowd my brain alongside images of faith, hope, and generosity. Above all, I'm awed by the resilience of the human spirit.

We drive west along Cuba's northern coastline, past Matanzas and toward Havana. We're surprised to see several operating oil wells between the ocean and the highway. For several years Cuba has been pumping low-quality oil, unsuitable for refinement into gasoline, for use in its power plants. Spain, Canada, and Brazil are working with Cuba to explore for oil deposits in Cuban waters, but the U.S. embargo prevents American participation.

Back in Havana, we meet with the Rev. Dora Arce-Valentin, moderator of the Presbyterian Reformed Church in Cuba and pastor of the Luyano Church. We settle down in Luyano Church's sunny meeting room as the musty odor of mango pollen floats on the breeze. From deep within the Havana neighborhood, we hear a chanting call: the prayers of Santero, a priest of Santeria. This ancient pagan worship, first brought to Cuba in the middle 1550s from West African by Yoruba slaves, is said to be Cuba's most-practiced religion. Our visit to the provinces has only scratched the surface of Cuba's cultural history.

Arce-Valentin is warm and welcoming. We talk about the Cuban reality, of being the church in a communist/socialist country. "I am very sure," she says emphatically, in excellent English, "that the only way we are going to be able to finish this crazy thing and restore the sad history of the relationship of our two governments is through God's people."

For 10 days we have traveled hundreds of miles through cities and villages, meeting the young and old, the churched and unchurched. Some of us will now work to loosen restrictions on the importation of medicines and food and to facilitate visits among family members. Two will return in the autumn for a partnership gathering in Havana, and several Springfield teenagers will spend Christmas with Cuban families.

But our unspoken goal at the beginning of our trip was to be transformed by our experiences and to bridge the wealth and power gaps that separate us.

We still have a lot of work to do.

Also from Barbara Olson

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