Cover Story


It's downright difficult living in poverty under a brutal dictator's thumb, but an army of compassionate Americans could help churches better the lives of poor Cubans

Issue: "Why the long face, Fidel?," May 1, 2004

Four years ago both the United States and Cuba were deeply into the Elian Gonzalez debate. The 6-year-old boy found off the Florida coast on Thanksgiving Day and seized by federal immigration agents in a predawn Miami raid on April 22 was in a legal tug of war that would end with his return to Cuba on June 28.

Since then Cuba has largely been off the American radar screen. Journalists have written much about some Middle East terrorists imprisoned at Guantanamo, the U.S. base on the southeast Cuban coast, but little recently about how Fidel Castro's regime, now celebrating its 45th year in power, imprisons the 11 million people of Cuba. The only recent attention came in Oliver Stone's pro-Castro HBO documentary last month.

And yet, Cuba is inescapably on our radar because of proximity (90 miles away from Florida) and history (the United States liberated Cuba from Spain little more than a century ago, only to see it fall into the hands of various dictators). The four-decade-long U.S. embargo-no trading with or regular tourist visits to Cuba-forced the Castro regime to make some concessions to reality in the early 1990s, but the Clinton administration loosened restrictions and the Bush administration this month is deciding whether to tighten them (see p. 72)-and if so, how?

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Three Spanish expressions common in Havana summarize what I saw during a recent trip to Cuba. First, heard regularly: No es facil (It's not easy). Every aspect of life-from gaining basic material sustenance to traveling across town to remaining psychologically relaxed when any neighbor or associate might be an informer-is difficult.

Second, heard as an explanation of why a failing government resents attempts to fill the gaps, Ni comen ni dejan comer (They don't eat, neither do they let others eat). Churches are ready and willing to do better than the government in helping the poor and particularly the elderly, but it is officially and ideologically the responsibility of the state to provide all social services. Officials turn down church requests to build homes for the elderly and even citizen attempts to organize the collection of garbage that is rotting in the streets. Everything compassionate people do is an indictment of government failure-and Cuba's Communist Party is desperately trying to avoid facing the truth.

Third, abundantly seen on billboards, the favorite Castroite slogan: Un mundo mejor es posible (A better world is possible). Marxist sloganeering tends to have three stages: belief, cynicism, and flipping the slogan on its head. Some Cubans may still believe that the regime can produce a better world; many appear to be cynical; but the future is with Christians who have faith that a better world is possible and are willing to take reasonable risks in striving toward that goal.

Probably 500,000 Roman Catholics attend mass in Cuba weekly, and several million more feel some Catholic connection. The largest growth of biblical sensibility in recent years has been among Protestants, who now number between 600,000 and 2 million. A precise number is hard to come by because fewer than 200,000 Cubans adhere to establishment denominations that make up the Consejo de Iglesias, the Cuban Council of Churches, a leftist body tightly connected to and directed by government authorities.

The explosive growth has come in unregistered casas cultos, house churches. The largest denominations-such as the Baptist and Assembly of God conventions-generally scorn the Council. Those in the free churches are desperately trying to extend their territory both in evangelism and in the provision of social services. Here are five typical faces, with names changed and some specific detail withheld to protect the innocent:

• President "Ricardo" of the Baptist Convention sits in an office decorated with, among other items, 18 Don Quixote statuettes. The kindly 73-year-old did hard labor in prison from 1965 to 1970 for not toeing the Party line. He spent time in a forced labor camp, cutting sugar cane alongside criminals and other religious prisoners labeled by the government as "social scum." He looks back on that time as "very difficult, but an opportunity to preach the gospel to prisoners," many of whom became Christians. Released and told not to preach again, he started up immediately and recently celebrated his 50th anniversary as a preacher.

He is hoping for the opportunity to do more for the elderly. The government allows Baptists to run one home with room for 30 ancianos, pays for a doctor and two nurses whom the Baptists can select, and recently gave permission to enlarge the home so that 15 or 20 more can live there. But Baptists have not gained permission to open up other homes for the aged or to have the opportunity to do more in other areas. Nevertheless, the reverend. is reading Abraham Lincoln biographies-"I love the history of Lincoln, how he worked to free the slaves"-and still hopes that freedom will come to Cuba without more blood being shed.


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