Psychologists and social scientists tell us that first impressions are very important and that we begin to form them quickly, perhaps as fast as five seconds after we first meet someone.
Late last March, I met Cuba.
My three days in the island nation—partly to be present for Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic visit and partly to see the work of Caritas Cubana that is supported by Catholic Relief Services—left me with some very strong first impressions.
Of course, I realize that a three day trip can never make one an expert or hardly give a full picture, especially of something subtle and complex. Three days nevertheless can be full of first impressions, and that certainly was my experience in Cuba.
There can hardly be a more beautiful sight than looking out on the turquoise water of Havana Harbor to the city’s skyline. And nothing is more refreshing than the Carribean breezes that soothe the heat of the day.
The marvelous renovations and reconstructions in old Havana, funded primarily by Unesco, stand in stark contrast to adjacent delapidated, deteriorated structures. Fabulous architecture, unkept and uncared for, crumbles like sand castles swept by the incoming tide.
The demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s caused great collateral damage in Cuba. With Soviet subsidies gone, so much fell into disrepair, so many became desperate.
Ubiquitous billboards remind you that society needs socialism, that socialism is the answer to all hopes and concerns. ¡Mas Socialismo!¡Socialismo hoy, mañana, y siempre!
Yet, socialism has left so many on the margins of society in Cuba. Socialism has led to the control of peoples' lives, restricted their freedoms and caused people to seek a better life elsewhere.
Poco a poco
I was expecting to hear discontent from the people, more anger and resentment, but I encountered little of that. It was as if one does not talk about what is not going well. You endure, wait things out. After all, those in charge are elderly and time will leave them behind. Poco a poco things will change.
Cubans are industrious people, proud, poised for change. They have lived through hard times, but they remain hopeful, buoyant.
Walking the streets in Santiago and Havana, I met beautiful people going about the business of living, difficult as it is with little opportunity to work and few chances to advance. I saw children pedaling rusted bicycles. Most of the cars were out of the 1950s. Somehow their owners keep them running. I walked by neighborhood stores that had little on their shelves. The cupboards are empty. For the ordinary Cuban life is tough, especially for the elderly and the very young.
I was impressed to see how Caritas Cubana, partnering with our Cathoic Relief Services, is striving to respond to the overwhelming needs throughout Cuba.
I met Maritza Sanchez, director of Caritas Cubana, a gracious, energetic, deeply committed woman who works hard to earn the trust of the government so that Caritas can continue to assist people in need. Her staff supports the elderly, distressed families, parents caring for children with Down syndrome, people with HIV-AIDS.
We traveled to one of the poorest areas of Cuba to visit a center for the elderly who, too often, fall into the gaps in the nation’s ragged social services safety net. At the center, they get a nutritional meal and food for the spirit: attention, recognition, affirmation that they are important, they matter. One elderly man wearing a jaunty Havana hat spoke of how at the center he makes friends and enjoys the company of people he can laugh with.
I heard from Maritza how many families struggle to care for their children, especially children with special needs. Caritas Cubana provides a haven for poor children where their hunger can be eased, where they can find safe rest and loving care. Caritas Cubana works with parents to help educate them on how to deal with the specialized needs of children with Down syndrome.
The Church in Cuba stands ready to do more to respond to the desperate needs of so many.
Cuba was officially atheistic from 1962 to 1992. Religious practice was highly restricted, and people of faith were frowned upon. Yet during the few days of Pope Benedict’s visit, hundreds of thousands of people came by foot—sometimes traveling miles—to come to the Plaza Antonio Maceo near the Sanctuario De la Caridad de Cobre in Santiago de Cuba and to gather in Revolution Square, Plaza Jose Marti, in Havana to take part in the Holy Father's celebrations of the Eucharist. A river of people streamed along the closed-to-traffic streets leading to the places of celebration. Some came in wheelchairs, some walking with canes. Teens wearing yellow papal paper sunshields ran to find a prize spot to view the event. Banners strung along the routes clearly meant to tell Pope Benedict that he was welcome.
At each celebration, the entry of a van with the image of La Virgen de la Caridad de Cobre mounted on its roof was greeted with cheers from the crowd. The people’s devotion to the Virgen, patroness of Cuba, was obvious. The faith has remained deep in the hearts of the people.
It is estimated that about 60 per cent of Cubans are Catholic, but only six per cent of Catholics in Cuba attend Mass in any regular way. Yet it was clear that people pray and feel a bond and connection to the Virgin Mary who continues to bring people to her Son.
Pope Benedict, the pilgrim of Charity in his quiet, gentle, thoughtful manner, drew the attention of the world to Cuba and captured the affection of the Cuban people. On his arrival, the Pope was greeted by President Raul Castro. The Pope engaged this leader who is feared by many, despised by some, and to whom others are deeply loyal. Benedict's words throughout his visit were restrained, a kind of "velvet hammer," gently but clearly prodding for change, for opening up, calling for one Cuba for all Cubans.
Benedict also spoke to the international community, surely to the United States, in calling for less isolation and greater engagement. For some time, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has asked for an end to the 50-plus year embargo imposed by President John F. Kennedy. The embargo has not achieved its goal of moving Cuba toward greater democracy. The pope was suggesting another way.
President Castro and members of the government stood alongside the Holy Father in public. They sat in the first row for both Papal Masses. After the visit, President Castro chose to grant Cubans a holiday on Good Friday, a small concession, yet a tiny ray of light that matters may change, may be different. Time will tell.
The Holy Father met privately with Fidel Castro. I pictured the discussion between these two aging, frail men, weaker than when they were in their prime, less agile, yet still strong in their convictions. While their lives have taken very different directions, maybe their encounter raised some questions in Fidel Castro’s mind and heart about what lies ahead, what is in store for him, what makes for a life worth living.
After three days of many first impressions, the strongest impression that accompanied me back to our country was this:
Faith remains deep in the hearts of the Cuban people. That faith stirs hope that life will be different with more opportunities and a more fulfilled life. Cuban people are blessed with many gifts, talents and resources. They stand ready to blossom abundantly like a full blown bougainvillea plant that draws your attention by its beauty.
As Pope Benedict said on leaving this land of promise, “Discouragement yields to hope, goodness dispels uncertainties and a powerful force opens up the horizon to beneficial and unexpected benefits.”
I left this short visit with a blessed assurance that in time all will be well. In the meantime, efforts must continue to engage Cuba as the Holy Father did by making his visit, mingling with the people, hearing their hopes and dreams and calling them to a renewal of faith. He asked that we “reject immovable positions and unilateral viewpoints” as we work for greater international cooperation that leads to change.