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Cuba impressions
By Chris Young

In Cuba, the most jarring case of culture shock is the distance between the worlds of visitors and those who live there.

Tourism is an important source of revenue for the island nation, and its future is inextricably tied to whether or not its tourists get their fresh-squeezed orange juice on demand.

At a roadside oasis built to accommodate busloads of visitors along the highway between Santa Clara and Havana, a woman was adamant that she get what she wanted.

With her hands, she motioned impatiently to the Cuban waitress - pantomiming the action of twisting half of an orange on a juicer.

"Fresh-squeezed," she said impatiently. "Do you have fresh?"

Meanwhile less than 100 yards away, more than a dozen Cubans lined the highway - many waving Cuban currency - trying to convince someone to give them a ride.

Transportation in Cuba can be difficult. Few people have cars, and bus fares consume pesos that could be used for other necessities.

Most cars are decades old - although these days there are some newer vehicles. A Presbyterian church official told our group that his Presbytery (the church's regional governing body) had only four cars.

"Some American households have that many," he said.

From Dec. 28 to Jan. 5, I was traveling in Cuba with a group of five others from First Presbyterian Church in Springfield. We spent a few days in Havana and the rest of the time in Sancti Spiritus - a community about the size of Springfield - where First Presbyterian has a partnership with a sister Presbyterian church.

Most Cubans live very modestly by U.S. standards. Buildings in the older sections of town often are in serious need of fixing and updating.

The tourist oasis, on the other hand, features a restaurant made to look like a tropical retreat, its roof supported by a plastic tree trunk. There were plenty of shops selling cigars, rum, stamps and other souvenirs. The only Cubans were employees.

Back on the road, it was impossible not to feel uncomfortable.

A woman trying to flag down a ride at the entrance to the highway held her 2-year-old in her arms. It was doubtful the child got fresh-squeezed juice for breakfast.

Those who got a ride couldn't be picky. One truck covered with a tarp had riders in the back, their heads poking above the plastic in the full force of the wind.

Contrasts and contradictions
Cuba needs an economic stimulus bill - or two or three or four of them.

"America is in an economic crisis at this moment," one person told us. "But Cuba has been in crisis for a long time."

If the Cuban people are resentful of wealthy tourists coming to play in their country, they don't show it.

People were friendly and gracious. Many tried to speak to us in English, saying they liked baseball or other things about America.

One man sat down next to me and proceeded to offer pointers on photographic composition in Spanish. He pointed to a picturesque blue doorway and the "uno, dos, tres, quatro" windows in a row, all covered with decorative wrought-iron grating.

In Havana, new or renovated restaurants and hotels are sandwiched between dilapidated buildings. In some instances, only the facades remain standing, giving the whole scene a movie-set feel.

Infrastructure is in desperate need of repair. Many people live in homes that - by U.S. building code standards - would not be occupied.

Electrical service boxes stand wide open with wires taped together.

Not everyone has refrigeration.

Building supplies have to be purchased at approved shops, or the home repairs could land the handyman or woman in trouble with the authorities.

Hot water, toilet paper, toilet seats and other things we take for granted often are lacking. We learned to carry our own toilet paper. Napkins unused at lunch were squirreled away in backpacks for emergencies.

Political and economic revolutions
Fidel Castro took over when he came to power in 1959 and headed the government until failing health forced him to step aside in 2008. Fidel's younger brother, Raul, has been running things since. The Castro brothers' rule spans the terms of 11 U.S. presidents. Despite the political will to retain control for more than half a century, it seems inevitable that, someday, economic forces will end Cuba's isolation - regardless of what governments have in mind for the island.

When that happens, one wonders what parts of life will get better for Cubans and what parts will be lost?

At a Sancti Spiritus nightspot, a musician shows us his guitar (known as a Tres) strung with three sets of two strings close together - helping him achieve a unique sound.

A couple dancing to traditional Cuban music moves together almost instinctively - owing to the fact they have been dance partners for years.

At the tourist oasis on the highway, traditional music already has been replaced. Instead, the piano player is plinking out Beatles tunes and "New York, New York."

Pizza and French fries are center stage on the menu, not roast pork and Yuca (a root vegetable similar to a potato), cabbage salad and a fudge-like candy with peanuts wrapped in wax paper.

It would appear more change already is under way.

At Jose Marti Airport, seven more flights to Miami were on the schedule after our plane departed at noon. Cuban-Americans with family on the island can travel back and forth. Those with special permission, like churches, also can receive a license to travel. Some Cubans, lucky enough to have Spanish grandparents, can get a passport from Spain.

The rest have to wait and see if the gulf between the world of the tourists and theirs will ever close. And Cubans will have to wait to see if there still is room for their culture in an era of globalization.

Cuba facts

  • The island nation is located about 90 miles south of Key West, Fla.
  • Cuba's area is slightly smaller than Pennsylvania.
  • Population is just over 11.4 million.
  • Havana, the capital, has just over 2 million inhabitants.
  • E-mail and Internet access are severely restricted. Cubans rarely have personal e-mail accounts unless they are in some official capacity.
  • President Dwight D. Eisenhower instituted the economic embargo against Cuba when Cuba nationalized U.S. assets in the country following the 1959 revolution. Eisenhower froze Cuban assets in the U.S. and instituted an embargo that still is in effect.
  • Cuba then turned to the former Soviet Union for economic assistance, but has been in an economic downturn since foreign aid stopped flowing in 1990.



Churches are churches
Some things are universal.

And the biggest surprise might be in discovering how much things really are the same.

Churches struggle with budgets. They try to figure out how best to attract new members. They try to address problems in the community that may not receive attention from other entities. And their members look after one another.

After spending several days with members of the Presbyterian Church in Sancti Spirtus, Cuba, the most eye-opening revelation was that churches are more alike than we could have imagined.

First Presbyterian Church in Springfield has maintained a partnership with the Sancti Spiritus Presbyterian Church since 2000.

In Sancti Spiritus, church members expressed concern about an aging congregation that is resistant to change - a problem facing many mainline churches in the United States.

They expressed worries about their budget and programs that might go unfunded.

And the similarities kept on coming.

One evening, a group of girls performed an interpretive dance at one of the church's missions. Girls from First Presbyterian Church in Springfield had performed a similar piece during the youth Christmas program - more than a thousand miles and at least two plane rides away.

And the congregations argue about things that might seem silly to outsiders.

Leaders of the Cuban church sheepishly admitted they have had spirited discussions lately about pews - and how they are configured in the sanctuary. We couldn't keep from laughing. Our congregation (rather vigorously) discussed pews and whether a row or two should be removed from the back of the church - a family disagreement that lasted more than a year.

Human nature seems to know no borders.




Story published Friday, March 5, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 2 )

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