Elin's Fevered Island

The first big surprise on landing in Havana, Cuba, is the magnificent new José Martí International Airport. You’ve heard all the stories about the collapse of the island’s economy after the Soviet Union abandoned subsidies in 1989, and how since then, with the tightening of the U.S. embargo under the Torricelli (1992) and Helms-Burton (1996) laws, Cuba has been reduced to penury. Imports of fertilizer have virtually ended, the sugar harvest is down by half, factories have closed because they cannot find replacement parts for broken machinery, and unemployment has skyrocketed. So the traveler is hardly prepared for the airport in all its gleaming, postmodern glorylooking a little like Paris’s Pompidou Centerall cantilevered roofs, exposed steel girders and pipes, potted palms and highly polished tile floors. The lobby is crowded with arriving European and Canadian travelers being escorted to their brand new Fiat buses by swank tour guides. During his historic visit to the island in January 1998, Pope John Paul II insisted that "Cuba must open to the world and the world must open to Cuba." Well, Fidel Castro has had little choice but to open to tourists and a dollar economy, and the signs indicate that he doesn’t like it one bit.

The airport customs officials are friendly enough, but there’s a slight snafuand an hour delay waiting for our visas. So by the time my partya delegation of mostly Miami-based clergy led by Wayne Smith, former chief of the United States Interests Section in Havana under the Carter administrationreaches the parking lot and our shiny new minibus, daylight has faded. We circle a darkened city of Havana, driving along the northern coast heading for the resort town of Varadero 80 miles away. The last time I was in Havana, during my senior year in college, was 43 years ago. There are practically no highway lights now; the only illumination comes from the headlights of other vehicles, and once we are out of the city limits, these are few and far between. The driver has to keep slowing up to avoid huge potholes in the road. The next day I realize that almost all the cars and trucks, except for an occasional Russian-made Lada, are old Chevys and Fords of 1950’s vintage. Has time stood still since 1959, when Castro displaced the tyranny of Fulgencio Batista with his own? Strangely, I find the fantasy consoling, as if the Cuba of my youth had remained intact. Only of course it hasn’tmost of the people I once loved here are now dead and gone, and everything has changedsome things for the better (literacy is up, health care for the poor is much improved), much for the worst (the economy is a shambles, everyone is now poor, and freedom is at a minimum).


When we pull into the Hotel International at Varadero at about 11 p.m., I forget about dinner and go straight to bed. Serenaded by the sound of sea breezes rattling royal palm branches and waves breaking on the shore, I am instantly asleep. In the morning, I rise to take a swim and a walk along the beach, one of the Caribbean’s most beautiful. Up ahead about a mile I make out the silhouette of the now abandoned beach house of the chemical magnate Irenée DuPont, who once used to vacation here.

Most of the Cubans who hold down the solid dollar jobs at the new tourist hotels in Varadero commute by bike or buggy from the town of Cárdenas about eight miles inland. My group is headed for the Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue there, a Protestant ecumenical center whose director, the Rev. Raimondo García Franco, has invited us to a two-day conference with Cuban clergy and academics. The idea is to improve relations between the United States and Cuba, currently inflamed by the Elián González case. The meeting had been organized months before Elizabet Broton Rodríguez tried to flee Cuba with her six-year-old son Eliánbut Cárdenas, after all, was the town they came from, so the subject is at the back of everyone’s mind. Can we see his home, we ask? His school? For the benefit of CNN, both Elián’s father’s house and his school have been freshly paintedin a decaying city that otherwise hasn’t felt a paint brush in 41 years.

State of the Churches

Our conference agenda is to cover three topicsthe state of religion in Cuba today, obstacles to Cuban-American relations and the role of the churches in improving those relations. The first task of our Cuban partners, then, is to inform us about the present situation of the churches in Cuba. The data are a little roughno one has been keeping careful trackbut since the mid-80’s religion has been enjoying something of a revival, and church-state relations, most people agreed, have steadily improved. Since 1991 believers in God can be admitted to the Communist Party (they are not knocking down the door, apparently), and there are now three Protestant ministers in the national parliament. Over the years even Fidel Castro, the truest of true believers in Marxist-Leninist dogma, has changed his mind: In a speech to the Jamaican Council of Churches in October of 1977, Fidel announced that there is "no contradiction between the aims of religion and the aims of socialism." Pentecostal churches and spiritualism, both of which appeal to and serve the most marginal groups in society, have grown at the most rapid rate in the last decade. The Catholic Church now counts 658 parishes, 248 priests and 325 nuns, we are told; and Protestants and Evangelicals count between 1,500 and 1,700 pastors in at least 200 major churches and numerous storefront churches. There are now two Catholic seminaries and some 22 Protestant or Evangelical seminaries in Cuba today. (The figures are disputed. Others say that priests number 900. What is agreed on is that most of the Catholic clergy are now native-born rather than Spanish, as the majority were before 1959.) Father Ivo Bastarach, a Canadian Catholic priest at our meeting who has been a pastor in Varadero for 27 years, told me that, yes indeed, religion is thrivingrelatively speaking. Before the revolution, he estimated, "practicing" Catholics probably consisted of .09 percent of the population; that figure, he thought, had now risen to around 2 percent. "If you are a Catholic these days," he said, "you are probably a committed one."

To put Father Bastarach’s sobering comment in context, it is important to recall that even before the revolution Cuba was rated the most secularized nation in all of Latin America. What impact the church then had was limited to the urban upper and middle classes; the rural population, upon which the Castro government concentrated in its first decades, was almost completely unchurched. A famous 1957 survey showed that of 400 heads of rural families, 53.51 percent had never laid eyes on a priest; another 36.74 percent indicated they only knew one by sight, with only 7.81 percent claiming to have had any personal contact with a cleric. The scandalous weakness of the church in rural areas was also revealed by the fact that 41 percent claimed to have no religion; and while 52 percent said they were Catholics, 88 percent of these never attended Mass, and only 4 percent did so three or more times a year.

In effect, the prerevolutionary church had abandoned the rural population to Afro-Cuban syncretist groups like Santería, which in its origins was one of several underground societies by which African slaves preserved their native culture of divinization while simultaneously assimilating the Spanish Catholicism of their oppressors. At first suspect for its "secret rites" and subject to persecution by the Castro regime, Santería remains a vital force throughout Cuba today, and its leaders were deeply offended when, unlike their Protestant and Jewish counterparts, Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino did not invite them to meet the Pope during his 1998 visit. (The Cuban participants at our meeting, mainly from Protestant and Evangelical churches, seemed equally uncomfortable with the popularity of these Afro-Cuban cults and perplexed about what to make of them. They also complained about unnamed groups engaging in deceptive and coercive practices of proselytizing and churches showing "little social awareness.")

The Catholic Church, scholars agree, was ill-prepared to respond to the challenge of the Castro revolution in 1959. It lacked organizational flexibility, ideological and political openness, and commitment to the major socioeconomic change that the Second Vatican Council would call forand hence, relatively rapidly, the church came to be regarded as a refuge for those opposed to Marxism and the revolution. For different reasonsbecause they were identified with their United States fundersProtestant churches became equally suspect. In the early 1960’s 70 percent of Catholic priests and 90 percent of Catholic religious were either expelled or left Cuba voluntarily. Over 50 percent of Protestant clergy and lay leaders also left at this time, while the Jewish community dwindled to one-tenth of its 1959 size (12,000). The revolutionary government closed no churches, but after the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 17, 1961, church schools were nationalized, the church was denied access to the media, and in both schools and the workplace, church people were marginalized and discriminated against.

Castro, it was reported, had softened this hostile stand after visits with Chilean Christians for Socialism in the early 70’s, and visits with Christian Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 80’s. Two Chilean bishops who visited Cuba in February 1971 asserted that the lesson of Cuba was that "Christians must not stand apart from the revolutionary process. They should...not just stay on the sidelines and carp. Because if one wants the right to criticize and suggest courses of action, he has to roll up his sleeves and get into the work. Otherwise he will have no title later to claim a hearing." By the early 1970’s the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish communities began to accept this advice and had shed some of their counterrevolutionary image. Local theologians started to lay the groundwork that would allow believers to cooperate in building a socialist society. In response, at the Cuban Communist Party Congress of 1975 the party faithful were urged not to isolate or reject believers, but rather to incorporate them into the revolution. Article 54 of the 1976 Constitution specified: "The socialist state, which bases its activity and educates the people in the scientific materialist concept of the universe, recognizes and guarantees freedom of conscience and the right of everyone to profess any religious belief and to practice, within the framework of respect for the law, the belief of his preference."

The 1980 party congress went further, encouraging strategic alliances between Christians and Marxists. It was possible, Catholic leaders answered, to be "Christian revolutionaries"; what was not possible was to be "Christian Marxists." Even so, after 20 years of revolution the churches were ready to assume a more assertive and public role in society, supporting the overall goals of the revolution but (discreetly) criticizing systemic deficiencies. When the 1979 Puebla meeting of Latin American bishops called for evangelization that would create more just societies, many Cuban Catholics were ready to respond constructively. For even though Cuban Catholics may be sick of the Castro regime, this does not mean they want a restoration of the prerevolutionary order. In recent days, according to Margaret E. Crahan of the City University of New York, an expert on Cuba, "Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as the Jewish community, are preoccupied with fortifying civil society prior to any transition and reducing the possibility that after Castro power might be seized by Cubans from outside the island." In one thing the government has succeeded: It has instilled a deep fear of the Cuban exile community.

Human Rights

The Cuban Constitution’s rhetoric of freedom of conscience and religion is deceptive. The island remains a police state, and Cubans are under constant surveillance. They are watched at home by government observers, one on every block and in every rural zone; they are watched at school by the Union of Young Communists; they are watched on streets and buses; they are watched at work by the government labor union, and plainclothes agents of the Ministry of Interior infiltrate every aspect of work and play. In the biggest crackdown in a decade, 600 dissidents have been arrested since last November.

The trap lies in the qualification that the individual’s conscience is honored only "within the framework of respect for the law." Implicitly, the law presupposes that religion will stay private, confined to the sacristy. Article 62 of the Cuban Constitution, for instance, states that the freedom of expression, association and assembly "cannot be exercised against the existence and goals of the socialist state, nor against the decision of the Cuban people to construct socialism and communism." Dissidents are typically imprisoned under Article 144 of the Penal Code, which forbids any statements that "disrespect, insult or abuse the dignity or honor of the authorities." Independent journalists and critics frequently run up against Article 103, which prohibits "enemy propaganda," or Article 143, which criminalizes "resistance to authority." And finally there is the catch-all Article 72, the "law of dangerousness," that threatens prison terms of up to four years, even when no crime has been committed, if one exhibits a "special proclivity to commit crimes as demonstrated by behavior that manifestly contradicts the norms of socialist morals."

According to the 1999 report of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, the subordination of the courts to the National Assembly and the Council of State "robs Cuban courts of even the semblance of independence and impartiality." And Cuban prisons have a frightening reputation. Again, says the Human Rights Watch report, "Cuba confines its sizable prison population under substandard and unhealthy conditions.... Cuban prison practices fail in numerous respects to comply with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.... Most prisoners suffer malnourishment from an insufficient prison diet and languish in overcrowded cells without appropriate medical attention. Some endure physical and sexual abuse, typically by other inmates with the acquiescence of guards, or long periods in isolation cells. Prison authorities insist that all detainees participate in politically oriented re-education’ sessions or face punitive measures.... The inhumane conditions and the punitive measures taken against prisoners have been, in several instances researched by Human Rights Watch, so cruel as to rise to the level of torture."

Given these conditions, the Catholic Church has been walking a tightrope, following what might be called the Polish model. Hoping to step into the political vacuum left by a discredited Communist Party once Castro is gone, Cardinal Jaime Ortega apparently aims to play an even-handed mediating role during the transition period. Accordingly, he has generally tried to distance the church from human rights activists and dissidents. Yet within this compass there is considerable latitude. Indeed, it is something of a miracle that Dagoberto Valdés Hernández, a member of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace and the editor of Vitral, a bimonthly magazine put out in the Diocese of Pinar del Rio in western Cuba, has regularly demanded greater social justice and reconciliation among all Cubans (including those living abroad)and so far has evaded arrest. The same is true of the outspoken Archbishop of Santiago, Pedro Claro Meurice Estiu, who in a statement of September 1999 denounced the whole Communist system, its repression of dissidents and the church’s own passivity in the face of totalitarianism. (The archbishop, obviously, is not entirely happy with a policy that he sees as accommodating the enemy.) That the regime has not cracked down on such church criticism may be due to the fact that in the current economic emergency it needs the humanitarian aid being channeled through church agencies. In any case, few Cubans can afford to be so outspoken in their discontent, and what they will say publicly (as at our conference) and what they say privately are two very different things. A party official sat in on our conference in Cárdenas, saying nothing but taking careful notes, no doubt to insure that no one violated the "norms of socialist morals."

State of the Economy

After two days of being watch-dogged in Cárdenas, I was glad to escape back to Havana, which in my teenage years had once felt like home. Because of its setting by the sea and its magnificent (if crumbling) beaux arts and art deco buildings, it is still a beautiful city. It also retains that special brand of Cuban warmth and exuberanceat least for those with dollars. In pursuit of the tourist dollar, in fact, the government is spending millions in restoring 17th- and 18th-century buildings in the old city, converting many of them into four-star hotels (which I hear remain largely empty because high-end tourists are still avoiding Cuba). It is perhaps surprising, but aside from an occasional billboard celebrating the hero-martyr Che Guevara, the city boasts no posters of Fidel’s "big brother" face. Yet his presenceand endless speechesdominate the country.

Castro, who was educated at the Jesuits’ Belén High School in Havana, is a bred-in-the-bone evangelist, a cross between Cotton Mather, Savanarola and Lenin. Since the opening days of the revolution, the debate over how to structure a socialist economy has never been fully resolved in Cuba. On one side there have been those who wanted a mixed economystate control of major production facilities like sugar mills balanced by an independent sector functioning with market mechanisms and material incentives (they knew about original sin). On the other side stood the utopian zealot Che Guevara, who abhorred market mechanisms and advocated complete central planning, relying on the "new man," who would not work for personal gain and wealth, like capitalists, but would sacrifice selflessly for the good of his comrades and the fatherland because it was the right thing to do. Fidel sided with Che. He thought he saw during the Bay of Pigs and Cuban missile crises that he could mobilize the Cuban masses by appealing to their patriotism and civic idealism. For the 41 years of his rule he has see-sawed, forced at times to compromise with an independent sector of self-employment, but always returning with evangelistic zeal to preaching the virtues of state control and the prelapsarian "new man," who never seems to arrive.

In 1968 Castro nationalized all the country’s small businesses, included street vendors and mom-and-pop shops, turning Cuba into the most socialized nation on the planet. The policy was an utter disaster, and the economy has arguably never recovered. "It is the intention of the revolutionary government," said Fidel at the time, "to raise an iron hand against all types of speculation, against all kinds of corruption, against all types of parasitism. So let it be known that nobody, absolutely nobody, will be able to make a living here as a scoundrel." The "scoundrel" is not the Irenée DuPonts of the world but the small entrepreneur.

The golden age of Cuban socialism, most agree, began in 1971a year after the colossal failure of Castro’s scheme to produce ten million tons of sugar, 30 percent more than the biggest harvest in Cuban historyand lasted till the mid-80’s. During this period central planning gave way to limited market mechanisms and some material incentives. Food rationing persisted, but with the help of Soviet subsidies there was enough food, and the government could point to its undeniable successes in education, health care and sports. In 1980 the state also permitted free farmers’ markets with prices set by supply and demanda hugely popular move. At the same time, a sphere of legalized self-employment opened up for taxi drivers, hairdressers, carpenters, family-run restaurants and some professionals.

Starting in 1982, Fidel began to backtrack, denouncing the self-employed workers and farmers for becoming too rich and corrupting the system. Hundreds of self-employed workers were arrested, and taxes on independent workers were doubled. In 1986, Fidel put an end to free farmers’ markets and self-employment by announcing the Process of Rectification of Errors (P.R.), which would return the country to Marxist-Leninist purity. Unable to produce the products and services eliminated by P.R., the economy immediately nose-dived. Then, with the 1989 Soviet cutoff of preferential trade, the bottom dropped out and P.R. was canceled. In 1990 an austerity programthe so-called Special Period in Times of Peacewas instituted. Oil imports dropped from 13 million tons in 1989 to five million in 1993. The Eastern European socialist bloc virtually ceased supplying raw materials and machine parts. Factories closed and unemployment shot up. Accordingly, self-employment was allowed back in 1991, and after much foot-dragging Fidel approved the dollarization of the economy in 1993to draw in remittances from Cuban relatives in Miami and Union City, N.J., which bring in some $800 million annually. Reluctantly, he also allowed the return of the popular farmers’ and artisan markets in 1994, and actively promoted foreign private investment in 1993-94. At the same time, undermining the whole idea of self-employment, there is a law on the books that makes it illegal to make too much money. Fidel still despises the small entrepreneurs, and they are constantly harassed and fined by the police.

The average Cuban’s salary is 160 pesos a month, with professionals like brain surgeons making the princely sum of 400 pesos. This 4:1 salary ratio fulfills the goal of equality, one of the central boasts of the revolution. At an exchange rate of 20 pesos to the dollar, this means the average Cuban in state employ earns $8 a monthin an economy in which since 1993 the dollar has been dominant. The gap between those with access to dollars and those who work for pesosand that means a majority of the black populationis growing and is a source of rising friction. Virtually everything, including food, can be purchased with dollars on the thriving black market and at the official dollar stores, but the shelves of the peso stores, where Cubans use their ration books, are pathetically empty. Food has been rationed since 1962, and most people report that the monthly allotment of rationed food lasts until the second or third week.

How do people survive? Everyone has to resolver "solve." Another common phrase is Hay que inventársela "one has to invent it." That is, one has to figure some creative and usually illegal way to make ends meet. One commonly does this at the workplace, where a job may involve a product like construction supplies, food or gasoline that can be diverted and sold on the black market. (No one except Fidel calls this stealing.) Those who are lucky enough to have decent apartments in Havana or Santiago have also been making dollars by renting them out to visiting tourists. So far as I have been able to discover from scholars, journalists and Cubans themselves, Cubans, by a ratio of at least 20 to one, are thoroughly fed up with the official brand of socialism. No, they wouldn’t welcome back a horde of vengeful exiles bent on throwing everyone out on the streets after reclaiming every house, apartment and farm on the island. But decades of adversity, rationing, repression and pig-headed stupidity have convinced them that Castro’s utopianism simply doesn’t work.

The Irrationality of the Embargo

As I flew out of the José Martí International Airport on my way back to the States, I pondered the irrationality of the U.S. embargo. Castro refers to it as the "cruel and immoral blockade" and blames it for all the nation’s economic problems. (Currently, a Havana court is conducting a show trial accusing the U.S. government of costing Cuba over $100 billion in lost revenue.) The last time the U.N. voted on this measure, it was 155 against to two in favorthe U.S. and Israel. During his 1998 visit, the pope repeatedly called for an end to the embargo, and U.S. bishops have echoed that sentiment in the wake of the pope’s visit. Why, sensible people ask, when we have recently lifted bans on the sale of food and medicine to Iran, Libya, Sudan and North Korea, is Cuba singled out? Or why, when the central theme of U.S. foreign policy, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, has been increased trade and "constructive engagement," is Cuba the exception? Is Cuba’s human rights record somehow worse than China’s? One has to suspect that the Cuban people have been made to suffer dearly for the fact that Fidel humiliated J.F.K. at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.

As the dollar stores show, the embargo is ineffective. It certainly does not prevent Cuba from obtaining American or any other nation’s products, since they can be acquired fairly readily through Panama or Mexicoprovided Cuba has the dollars. No, if anything, it only obscures Castro’s proven ability to ruin Cuba’s domestic productivity quite on his own, with no help from the U.S. What Fidel arguably fears is not the embargo but provisions of the 1992 Torricelli law that sought to promote nonviolent change in Cuba by funding independent groups in Cubajournalists, dissidents and church groupsand by flooding the island with U.S. college professors, intellectuals, tourists, athletes, artistsand information. Then in 1996, as if to head off this contagion of free exchange, Fidel shot down the two planes of the Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue group; and the Helms-Burton law, which penalizes foreign companies that trade with Cuba, was quickly passed in hair-brained reaction. The idea was that turning up the screws of economic pressure would drive Cubans to rebel and force Castro to hold free elections. Said a naïve and overconfident Senator Jesse Helms at the time, "Now we can say, adiós, Fidel."

Not a bit. Helms-Burton has only solidified Castro’s position. For one thing, though the increased economic pressure has hurt (e.g., preventing a Dutch bank from financing fertilizer purchases), it has also struck Canadians, Mexicans and many Europeans as an infringement on their own trading rights, and consequently they have gone out of their way to increase diplomatic contacts, trade and investment in the island. The economy is reported to have grown by an impressive six percent last year.

Finally, Helms-Burton has intensified repression inside Cubaprecisely because it gives substance to Castro’s charge that the island is once again under siege by the Goliath to the north. Castro uses this, as he has done before, to justify arresting dissidents and independent journalists, and to crack down on all his own officials who were open to dialogue with the Miami exiles and the "evil empire" of the U.S. government.

"If there is one thing we can say today," said Castro several years ago, "it is that the greatest accomplishment the Cuban people have been able to achieve above all other nations in the history of the world is that we have been able to challenge the empire. We have been able to resist that empire for...years. The empire already knows we are defending values that are very sacred, and we are defending hopes we will never renouncehopes for which we revolutionaries are willing to go to our graves." The sooner to the grave the better.

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