Robert L. Doty
This essay will examine the Cuban experience from three perspectives. First, it considers a mission visit to Christian friends primarily in the Havana area, considering the vitality of the Christian community there. Second, it examines some aspects of the historical and cultural heritage of Cuba through landmarks, some personalities, and cultural traditions that survive and give distinctive character to Cuba. Third, the essay examines the tensions and the irrational, sometimes conflicted, relationship between the United States and Cuba under the Castro government.
My visit to the island became a possibility early in 1995 when Boyd and Jane Robertson started planning for a two-week mission trip. The Robertsons had been career foreign missionaries in South America, and both were fluent Spanish speakers. So we were well equipped to share the Gospel and to form friendships with the Cuban people in Havana and nearby cities. They invited me to a join group of five, which also included Jean Pennebaker, a local artist and the widow of a former professor at Campbellsville and Dr. Daniel Garcia, a Louisville physician whose family roots were in Cuba. Dr. Garcia wanted to revisit the parish of his grandmother, to deliver a suitcase of medicines, and to share in the mission effort.
My personal connection with the state of affairs in Cuba began fairly early in my life. In 1959, I was in the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces ousted the Cuban dictator, Bautista. That event created an immediate response from the United States. The armed forces were put on an immediate 48-hour alert, restricted to bases to be ready for possible mobilization. The U.S. government already controlled a base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But we left things as they were. The rest is history and an odd hostility and tension, which in 2015 was moved toward some measure of normalization.
After my active military service ended in 1960, I enrolled in Georgetown College. With some connection to an idea of eventual missionary service in Latin America, I chose Spanish as my modern language. My professor of Spanish was Cuban-born David Davila. My plans did not take me to the Hispanic world for a professional life, but my interest in Hispanic culture continued. In fact, I had hoped for a long time to be able to go to Cuba.
The Robertsons coordinated our travel arrangements, and set up the trip for May 11-23. Of course the United States government would not permit us to fly directly to Cuba, so our travel plan routed us from Miami to Cancun, Mexico, and then onward to Jose Marti Airport in Havana.
Our flights went very well with the only problems arising when we tried to assure that the bags would be put on the plane to Havana. But the opposite happened. The bags were left in Cancun, creating some frustration and worries about the safety of the bags.
We found a thriving Protestant Christian community who welcomed us with charm and warmth, despite their very modest homes and financial resources. While four of us stayed with Adelberto Quellar and his family, Jean, a refined lady, stayed in a separate home. Jean found her accommodation most uncomfortable, but the rest of us took it in stride.
We were treated with a wide-ranging introduction to real Cuban life without any overt restriction by officials. So I was allowed to see, hear, and smell the reality of a country not filtered through the strident politics of alienation and hostility.
We were driven from place to place in an old family car. These old cars became iconic with Havana after severe trade restrictions were imposed on Cuba by the Kennedy administration. There were two kinds of cars: small utilitarian ones made in Russia (Lada), and classic old American cars from the fifties and sixties. These American classics are maintained with great pride and conscientious labor. A drive along any street may feel like a classic car show. They are painted with striking vibrant colors. The engines may be originals kept in working order by intrepid mechanics, to which tribe nearly everyone belongs, or other engines may be borrowed from any source available. The car in which we rode smoked a lot. The crudely refined fuel on which it ran spewed fumes that polluted the air in the most dramatic way imaginable.
We were driven to see grand houses in fine old architectural style along grand boulevards, and to the old Havana harbor. We were able to see the closing ceremony of the day at the Morrow Castle, symbol of colonial Cuba. Standing on the edge of that harbor wall, one can easily imagine a rich and colorful seagoing past in the Caribbean. The castle has always been the primary landmark of old Havana.
Part of our journey was a return to the ancestral home of Dr. Garcia. We drove to a small village east of Havana in hopes of identifying the baptismal record of his grandmother in the church book of the parish. At the church, we were met by an elderly lady who was custodian of the church. She was delighted to learn that one of us had roots in their village. She asked for details of the birthdate and the baptismal record. In a little while she found the page in the book that tied Dr. Garcia to this place. It was an experience of great delight on both sides. It turns out that this event was the culmination of a pilgrimage for Dan and was to be a great document for his family. I took pictures of the page in the church book for new family records
When we got back to Havana, Dan planted a tree as a memorial of his ancestry in Havana. So we had a part in adding to the long life of the land of Cuba. It was a wonderful gesture, especially for tree lovers like me.
All the warmth of our visit does not erase a backdrop of revolutionary hostility, not really constrained. On many walls in this village we saw some disturbingly harsh and violent graffiti art depicting the United States as the enemy of the people of Cuba. The political realities were and are not far from the surface.
This experience of seeing the reconnection of family and village from two generations past brought me into a warmth of celebration. I keep being invited into a wider world of friendship and kinships that I had not imagined. It seems to me that the richness of shared human experience is the best buffer against the bugbears of closed-minded ideological systems. There is no question that the Cuban people have suffered greatly under the contorted personal control of the Castros, who keep hiding behind a rhetoric of proletarian solidarity when all the while they sustain an unjust system of central government intimidation, a system with such hypocrisy that intimidation may be necessary.
But why did Americans keep a trade embargo on Cuba all those years which has denied a prosperous quality of life to good and innocent people that open and free trade would have provided? In fact, one could argue that we were enablers of Castroism. The only international cargo ships I saw in the Havana harbor were Chinese. They were not bringing rice alone.
One of the existential concerns of the Cuban people, who have endured all this injustice, is the persistent claim of those who “ran away”. It is asserted that the Miami expatriates will someday get to return and reclaim all the property they left behind. “Then whose will these things be?”
We were able to go out to the town of Mariel, the site from which the Cuban boat people left for Florida during the period from 15 April to 31 October 1980. Economic failure in Cuba created a crisis which finally brought Castro to allow anyone who wanted to leave Cuba to do so. During that seven-month period 125,000 people fled to Miami. Castro cynically interlaced legitimate emigrants with prisoners from jail and inmates from mental hospitals, creating a huge problem for social services and law enforcement in the United States. The end of the boatlift was mutually agreed to.
Here I was, standing on a quiet beach that gave no hint of the enormous activity that had taken place there just fifteen years earlier. Once more I was called out of my ordinary life to witness a place that would be recorded in our history
The primary purpose of our visit to the beach was the baptismal service for eight new local believers in the Gospel. After the service we drove back to Havana.
We returned to the airport for the luggage, put the cases in the car, and started back to Adelberto’s home. We stopped for gas on the way. Everyone left the car while the refueling was done. I took my small camera case. Dr. Garcia left his case on the car seat. MISTAKE. When we returned two minutes later the case was gone. It had money, tickets for him and Mrs. Pennebaker, both of their passports and other items. We started a frantic, but fruitless search helped by the local police. They called a police supervisor who came two hours later at 1:30 a.m. There was, of course no recovery, and no culprits were located. We had been warned about caution and protection of property We finally got home about 4:00 a.m. The whole scene was cause of some gloom. This incident should serve as an alert about reasonable caution in strange settings.
The next day we got the support of the Swiss Embassy and the assistance of Kentucky Senator Wendell Ford’s secretary to have the passports re-issued. We then had to negotiate a replacement of the visas. All this took about one-and-a-half days.
The Christian community in Cuba was very mature, with a genuine concern for each other and their community, but I do not wish to make it sound like Utopia. We went to a leading church where the pastor was married to a second wife, a domineering person. This pastor was unhappy that we were staying with Adelberto instead of him, but his tone, his negative manner, and his sermon all convinced me that we were staying in a very affirming place. We were not tempted to leave.
On a personal note, we got to visit with Betania Perez, the niece of Dr. David Davila, my Spanish teacher at Georgetown College. We wanted to give her some special gifts from her uncle that we had been deputized to deliver. Once more I experienced the warmth of links between friends from years go and many miles apart. The key here is clearly the warmth of fellowship among Christians around the world.
Our mission was reconfigured when on May 17 we took Dr. Garcia and Jean Pennebaker to Jose Marti Airport for their flight home. Dr. Garcia needed to get back to his office. I think Jean’s experience in Cuba was not very pleasant because of the uncomfortable accommodation, and, of course, the anxiety and the trauma of losing her documents and the scramble to have them replaced. Jean’s son works for the federal government in immigration services, so she had expected a bit more special treatment than she experienced. We were pleased that their departure from the airport was smooth and without delay. The departure of these two left us with only three on the visit. The Robertsons and I were closely connected with the work of the churches. I was pleased that both of them speak fluent Spanish and could translate my lessons and sermons, but they did most of the speaking so I was not stressed.
We got a real taste of the “two-tier” economy that I have found in every country whose economy is based on foreign tourism or other “us and them” thinking. We were taken to the “diplomats’ store” to shop for coffee and some gifts for our hosts. The prices there were as one would expect in a retail situation. When I stopped on the street at a regular shop, I had to pay two dollars for a coke. I later found out that the medical doctor who helped us was paid the equivalent of eight dollars for a month. On the street, where we were staying, they brought a cart load of freshly baked bread rolls for distribution to residents every afternoon. Something is clearly amiss.
We were driven out to a small town called Santa Maria Della Rosario to see a very old church in a lovely valley. This town was also the site of a famous mineral water spa that had been visited as a curative spa since 1859. We were constrained to have some of the water. I had a tiny sip to be polite. This spa reminds me of the famous one in England at Bath, which has been famous since Roman days and is a well-known tourist mecca. I also thought of my own home town of Irvine, Kentucky, which was the site of a spa called Estill Springs, widely visited in the early twentieth century.
I will speak a bit about ships. As I said, cargo was from China. But in a high-end harbor with boat slips I saw a French luxury yacht two hundred feet long. I was told that the yacht cost $18 million. There was a motorcycle parked on the dock alongside. I recall my images of the long stream of small boats that made up the months long Mariel Boatlift. And finally we will speak of the “Pilar”, the fishing yacht of Ernest Hemingway.
As we toured the harbors we came to the La Terrazza restaurant by the Hemingway Marina, which was widely decorated inside with large photographic prints of Ernest Hemingway. I was fascinated by this scene as I recalled my first college English research paper on Hemingway’s novel, The Old Man and The Sea. I thought much of the existential figure of old Santiago and his battle with the great fish, the end of which is to cripple to the dock with a skeleton lashed to the hull. Outside the restaurant I was met by an old man who asked me if I knew Hemingway. I told him I was a professor who had taught him but never met him. He replied that he was Gregorio Fuentes, the Captain of Hemingway’s yacht, the Pilar. I was skeptical, thinking he was just another panhandler, which was half true. But that is not the end of the story. That same day we went out to the Hemingway house museum. In the process of that visit I looked on a wall in Hemingway’s study, and there on the wall was a large photographic print of the writer and the captain in an obviously comfortable pose characteristic of old friends. This is still not the end of my connection with the Fuentes story.
On the plane ride home from London on Wednesday, December 26, 2001, I read an article in The Daily Telegraph, by David Sharrock, with a photograph of the 104-year-old Fuentes at his birthday celebration, smoking a cigar. The article gives some fine details of a friendship which had ended in Hemingway’s suicide in 1961. The life of Fuentes is poignant in that he still mourns his friend after fifty years. Fuentes’ life is a story of a singular devotion and connected identity. One life was over, and the other had been put on hold.
We went out to the (National) Hemingway museum which is the pride of the country. Castro and Hemingway were friends. I was able to do some photography and to see some special manuscripts after I convinced the reluctant guide that I had a serious interest in the writer. I got to see the small detached building which has an upstairs room preserving the writing study of Hemingway. I got to see some of Hemingway’s manuscripts. I walked down the hill to the boat slip to have a close look at the Pilar, which Fuentes had donated to the state, having given up fishing and everything else except whisky and cigars. Hemingway had willed the boat to Fuentes.
The Cubans are very conscientious in developing talented athletes, perhaps as a way to put their best foot forward. They, along with other Caribbean nations, have produced some of the greatest baseball players in the Major Leagues in the United States. Their year-round warm climate makes for extended playing time in the out of doors. Further, the central government can exert a special influence in identifying and nurturing talented athletes from early childhood in specially funded programs.
In 1991, Cuba was hosting the Pan Am Games in Havana. The preparations were hugely taxing for the people as the government was increasingly pressured to provide hard currency to its creditors in the communist block and as the Cuban economy faced economic difficulties. Nonetheless the Games went on.
Our visit to the main stadium was a shock as I saw the facility being neglected and in so few years, looking a bit seedy, with grass growing wildly and the structure showing signs of being unused. When a symbol of success and pride can’t be maintained, weakness in the whole economy is revealed. Again the hard-headedness between Washington and Havana seems to contribute to the pain of the people.
The Cubans are very proud of their cultural past. They love their museums and do what they can to ensure their preservation. We got to see several art museums and a few which are dedicated to specialty items.
The finest small museum I have ever seen is a brilliantly preserved pharmacy museum in central Havana. There are elegant cabinetry and wall decorations, hundreds of glass and ceramic jars, bowls and flasks, many samples of raw medicinal herbs and chemicals. The museum is an example of a facility which formulated and made their own medicines. It was an active business at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
I celebrated my sixtieth birthday on this trip. We were staying in Matanzas on the northern coast. Not far away one can see a most remarkable example of the lifestyle of corrupt opulence and elegance which brought about the climate of the Castro Revolution. The site is Varadero, which still boasts one of the most elegant hotels in the country. The natural attraction of the place is the beach, which is said to be one of the ten most beautiful beaches in the world. I don’t know much about beaches, but I won’t argue against this one. I had brought along my swim suit, swim goggles, and ear plugs. There would be no keeping me out of the water.
The water was crystal clear; there was not wind or waves. The Atlantic Ocean at this site has a very gradual depth gradation. A person can walk one hundred yards into the water and still touch bottom. I swam on-and-on. Even at a depth of twenty feet, an individual could still see small fishes and shells on or near the bottom. As I swam I thought I could see a small piece of paper at the bottom. I did a shallow surface dive, and discovered that there seemed to be the numeral one on the paper.
I did a full dive down to a depth of ten feet and pulled a one-dollar bill out of the sand. It was dated 1988. I put the bill in my swim suit and gave thanks for my birthday gift from the sea. One can’t make this stuff up!
After my swim I went into the hotel and found the dining room fully decorated with elaborate table settings of cutlery and crystal. I did not see any guests.
In Matanzas we went to visit the Evangelical Theological Seminary, where one of our young pastors, Eduardo, was studying theology. He, Eduardo, and I had a delightful conversation. We were introduced to several professors; of whom I will give some attention to one.
Professor Rene Castellano is a small man with balding hair, moustache, and trimmed beard. A lively eighty years old, he teaches Afro-Caribbean dance. In the seminary, he teaches Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and philosophy. He also teaches the pastoral counseling course. I told him that this was my birthday. He asked me how old I was, to which I replied, sixty. He said, “Just a baby”! Rene had planned to write his Ph.D. dissertation on four characters in Shakespeare, but his work was interrupted.
Our stay in Matanzas enabled us to work closely with the churches in various ministries. I was able to preach, with Jane Robertson translating. I also led two prayer services in local homes with a local pastor translating. Of course, the Robertsons were very active in all levels of ministry and visitation.
Their work in handicrafts and art kept many of them occupied. I did not understand the extent of the work at first, but I learned that they were putting together a collection of Christian art objects for us to export in our luggage to be sent to a church in North Carolina where Mahan Siler, formerly at Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, was pastor. They had put the art in a large box for shipping, but we advised them that we needed to separate the objects into smaller groups to make it easier to get them through customs as gifts. They had prepared a gift certificate in a letter.
We were taken out to the seashore to see a small fort where some freedom fighters in an era in which I am not clear. Boyd was not translating much of the exchange. I learned that the name “Matanzas” was chosen for the place, meaning “swine slaughter or killing place” because early natives killed pigs here to outfit sailors for ship stores on their voyages.
Boyd and I visited a youth camp on a river which we had to cross in a row boat brought over from the camp. It was a youth camp for teenage boys. I don’t know who sponsored the camp, but we were invited to speak of our visit to Cuba and to make a short statement about a well-disciplined life as a benefit in society.
While we were never harassed in our preaching, we were aware that a government representative was present who would monitor our messages for political issues. We even spoke with these monitors from time to time with kindness and social grace. We never felt direct interference.
In one particular incident we were reminded of governmental controls over people’s lives. One farmer sold us a stalk of bananas, but he could not deliver them to us lest he be seen making a private sale and not taking them to the government’s produce exchange center. He told us that he would leave the bananas on the side of the road for us to pick up. He was precise about the location. The bananas were placed as promised. We picked them up without incident. It is sad to see that governments force good people to act contrary to law in order to survive decently.
In their celebration of history, lore, and custom, they also preserve a sense of the heroic absurdity of the great fictional hero, Don Quixote. Paintings, statues, figurines, souvenirs, and all manner of memorability make the 400-year-old hero/antihero an integral part of Cuban culture. Cervantes has paired this “all-head” hero preserver of a “never-was” romantic ideal with an “all-belly” friend who cares about nothing but the physical world. Together they give us a glimpse of the true Hispanic genius.
The death of Fidel Castro on November 25, 2016 marks the end of the “Fidel” era of Cuban history. Whether seen as the “Colossus” of Cuba, hero, villain, or remarkable survivor, he will leave a lasting mark on the island nation. Even though he released the reins of government to his brother, Raúl, ten years ago, his presence continued to cast a shadow on the land.
The reset of relations between the United States of America and Cuba under President Obama has led many to hope for a well mended relationship being gradually developed between the two nations for the first time since 1959. As Fidel’s ashes have been returned to his provincial home, and as Barak Obama prepares to leave the office of President of the United States of America to Mr. Donald J. Trump, the future is unclear and open to wide speculation.
Robert L. Doty is Professor of English Emeritus, having come to Campbellsville in 1973, and has taught in London, England, for the Private College Consortium for International Studies. He continues to be active in the life of Campbellsville University and is a member of the Editorial Board of The Campbellsville Review.