A journal, 1994
MONDAY, OCTOBER 24, 1994
Since there's too much to cover, we're splitting the group up today. Ivonne takes Stephen, Pauline, Frank and me to the Central Havana Pediatric Hospital and the rest of the gang goes to visit a primary school.
This hospital is one of ten Pediatric Hospitals that serve the fifteen municipalities in the city. This one alone serves three of them. It's a large place near the center of the city and we find our way through the entrance booth (which seems to have no one in it) to the offices of Dr. Sonnia Oliver Lopez. She is a sturdy, competent-seeming woman, probably in her fifties, with dark hair. She tells us that this hospital provides all pediatric services, but mainly does kidney transplants, hemo-dialysis and neuro-surgery (which is difficult for them because of the high cost and intensive care required).
Q. - Do you do heart surgery?
A. - Up until two years ago we did, but no more. Because of the problems (read embargo) they moved those procedures to the main hospital because of the lack of certain medicines. The government assigns medicines. Others come through donations to the Public Health Ministry and are disbursed by them.
Q. - What do you lack?
A. - Cephalosporin (a new penicillin type drug), 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation (which refers to how many strains of bacteria it will impact), Penicillin, Amoxycillin (sp?), Arythromycin, and another "mycin".
Q. - Other kinds of drugs, not antibiotics?
A. - Vitamins, ultra-violet feeding materials.
Q. - What are the worst problems you face?
A. - Sepsis. Encephalitis, pneumonia, asthma (from now to March, asthma problems will grow), meningitis. We have no problems with meningoccocal disease because the Finlay Institute (a pharmaceutical research facility here) has discovered a vaccine for it. Bacterial meningitis we work on with the old medications.
Q. - Are the doctors and nurses infected by (something I can't make out)?
A. - No. There is great emphasis on infection control in the hospital.
Q. - How many doctors are there here? A. - 152.
Q. - How many beds? A. - 320.
Q. - Is there a big outpatient service? A. - Yes.
Q. - Do doctors follow the patients they treat on an outpatient basis? A. - Yes.
Q. - Is there an emergency department here? A. - Yes. The problem is that this is an old, well-known hospital in the center of the city. We have 400 to 500 emergency cases, including surgeries, every day. Many medical residents come here for their training.
Q. - NGOs can send medicines. Would you prefer to have them send medicines directly to your hospital or to the Ministry of Public Health?
A. - To us, because we are the ones who know our needs.
Q. - Would that be unfair to others? A. - No, because we share.
Q. - So this way it avoids bureaucracy and the paperwork? A. - Exactly.
Q. - What is the situation with regard to basic supplies?
A. - We no longer are able to obtain the supplies we used to get, but we have solved most of the problems associated with our shortages. We are short of many things, but use general antiseptics where we can. We lack bandages, and sometimes have to use "disposable needles" more than once, after sterilizing.
(Ivonne interjects that she has a friend in dental school who says they have no brooms, antiseptics or paper.)
Q. - Is your blood supply safe? A. - Yes, it's all screened.
Q. - What is the situation with regard to AIDS?
A. - We have a low rate, .08 per 100,000. There are 1,000 to 1,500 in the country who are HIV Positive. 400 who have full-blown AIDS. We have mandatory testing for immigrants from high-risk areas and pressure is put on homosexuals, prostitutes and other populations at risk to be safe and to test regularly. AIDS/HIV people are taken to a sanitorium and segregated from the population. They have passes to go out and are well cared-for. Now, of course, the sanitoria, as everything else, are suffering from lack of funding. In 1993, 13,500 tests were done, which found 886 to be HIV positive and 161 with fully developed AIDS. 89 people died. In Cuba, so far, AIDS is not a major problem. We're aware of the fact that it could become so with the development of tourism and the resultant rise in prostitution.
Q. - What is the situation with regard to disabled children?
A. - We deal with them on and in- or out-patient basis. We encourage parents to keep them at home, with the family. There are special schools for children with special needs (not including those with mental problems).
Q. - Is there an attempt to integrate them into social life and school life?
A. - We're trying to mainstream. The problem is that we lack certain kinds of equipment. For example, we have no wheelchairs for children, only those for adults.
Pauline identifies herself as a nurse and asks about the nurses here. Dr. Lopez responds by saying "the nurses are the heart of the hospital."
Q. - Have the tensions of the last four years created additional problems?
A. - We're seeing an increase in low birth-rate babies and an increase in infectious diseases.
Q. - Any behavioral changes?
A. - There are some indications of an increase in family violence, but there's no way to know if it's connected to the current social stress. What we are seeing for the first time is the phenomenon of children begging - though so far only in areas largely traveled by tourists.
Frank asks about the ratio of black doctors. She isn't aware of a ratio, but says we'll see for ourselves that there are many in the hospital.
Dr. Lopez then takes us on a tour of the hospital. The halls seem a bit dirty to me. Pauline thinks it's from the lack of light (bulbs are lacking here, too), but I think it's dirt. I'm reminded of Ivonne's mention of the lack of brooms and the general note about needing soap and cleaning supplies. We see a few of the wards, which seem to have been kept clean, so it's probably a question of appropriate use of what supplies they have. We're also shown a blood lab, which seems small and a bit grungy. (Not dirty, but plaster is off the wall, etc. The place needs a general clean-up and paint job. If only they had the materials to do it.) We see the X-ray department, which lacks film, and are shown the ultra-sound and meet the doctor in charge, who is happy to see us and enthusiastic about the hospital, its staff and the work it does.
Frank has leaned a bit on the issue of blacks in places of power/authority and I have the idea Dr. Lopez is a bit put off by either the inference or his persistence in this line. It's hard to know if it's hypersensitivity on our part or hers.
Outside, we're picked up by the bus. The group that went to the elementary school is ecstatic about their experience. They loved the kids, who were evidently very bright and straightforward. e.g. "What are you going to do for us?" and "What kind of uniforms do kids in your schools wear?" They lack paper for copy-books, they lack books, they lack pencils, they are in need of just about all of the essentials, but are full of enthusiasm. Their teachers, who evidently exhibit the same enthusiasm earn a salary that works out to about $3 per month at Black Market rates of exchange.
Our next meeting, to which we are of course late, is with Esteban Lazo, the First Secretary of the Communist Party in Havana. The building is in better shape inside than many we've seen and we head up the stairs to the meeting room, which is dressed with a conference table and a large picture of Che on one wall and large ones of Fidel, Lenin and Raul on another. We all have to have our picture taken as a group (except for Jack, of course) under the pictures of the Big Three.
Lazo comes in, with Fernando and a man named Rigoberto Hidalgo. He is a big man, very black (which gives Frank something to think about), with a sweet smile. He makes me think of the American actor, Yaphet Kotto.
Lazo has been here for a fairly short time, having been brought up from the same position in Santiago de Cuba in the southeast. I would assume this is a significant promotion.
He says the effects of the "special period" are emphasized in the capital. Life is very hard. The decrease in the living standard has already had a noticeable effect on nutrition and health. The main problem here is the food supply. Foods have to be brought in from outside the city, from greater Havana Province. In fact, there was improvement, but they had what is called here "The Storm of the Century" last year which devastated production. That, plus a lack of fuel, fertilizers and pesticides has exacerbated the problem. Also, the loss of animal feed has lessened their ability to continue programs to provide milk to children under seven. They are now focusing on hydroponics, organic farming and development of small plots of land (in the city) for agricultural use. They have to import and develop the production of seeds. Also they want to further develop cattle farming and the production of eggs.
The question is asked, he says, "How is it possible that in such difficulties so many continue to defend the Revolution?" He then says the answer lies in the fact that many generations recognize that the Revolution has brought the country education and health, guarantees of social security, rural electrification and highways.
A serious problem now is the water supply. The lack of pumps and pipes, plus the lack of ability to maintain the machinery, all added to the increase in population, have created big problems.
Housing is a problem. 49% of the houses in the city are in fair or bad shape. The lack of funds and materials worsens the situation. They are now working on low-cost housing ideas. In some provinces, 85% of the homes are built or repaired by materials produced in their own community or area (which explains the hodge-podge look we've seen). The rest will have to wait. In some situations we help with building part of a house or apartment (with the basics) and leave the rest to be finished later.
"We're making an effort in everything, but in everything we have big problems. The lifting of the embargo would be the most humane thing, as anyone who comes here can see."
Q. - Regarding your relationship with other Socialist countries, was it one of substantial assistance to Cuba or was it more of a commercial relationship? If it was the latter, why can't you turn to other countries for trade?
A. - There are many opinions. Both things existed. Trade was on the basis of agreements regarding equality of conditions - for example, our main product, sugar. They paid a price higher than the world market but it was cheaper than producing it themselves.
Q. - Then part of the problem arises from the fact that the special relationship you had is not available in the world today?
A. - Agreed. If it had been just a commercial relationship the fall of the Soviet Union would not have been such a terrible blow. At first we were dependent on the U.S. for anything we couldn't produce ourselves. When that relationship ended, we were able to turn to the U.S.S.R., but it takes time. When that relationship fell apart - we now have to develop the capacity for self-sustenance and develop relationships in new areas. The Torricelli Law makes it difficult in ways we haven't fully comprehended yet. (The effect on other countries and businesses owned or partly owned by the U.S. or impacted in their decisions by their relationships with the U.S.) The blockade itself has cost us $40 billion.
Q. - Are there special programs dealing with problems attendant to race?
A. - Always. From the beginning of the Triumph of the Revolution we've been struggling to eliminate racial and sexual discrimination. For a black to get to a university was a problem. There was effectively racial segregation. There was a racial split between blacks, mulattos and whites. The problems are historic. The colonials were white, the slaves black. Progress has been made, but it must continue. We have tried to institute a system of merit. Also, one has to be mindful of population ratio. In Santiago de Cuba the population is 70% black. Therefore, there are more black doctors and teachers there. Guantanamo (province) is almost all black. Other areas are almost all white. Havana is 37% Mestizo. It is a historical problem we have had to deal with and are struggling with. The same is true with women. If it weren't for the Revolution, where would I have been able to study? Now, the majority of our university students are women.
Q. - Do you see new social problems arising?
A. - Yes. All the difficulties we've discussed bring with them social problems. For example, emigration. It results from the stresses here. Tourism brings with it problems such as prostitution and an increase in common crime. There are discipline problems in society. There are many crimes of passion.
Q. - Is there organized crime? A. - No.
At the end of the session we all gather around and have pictures taken with Lazo under the picture of Che. (Except Jack) He thanks us for coming and takes off to deal with the problems he's been talking about.
Back in the bus, we head to the La Tasca Restaurant in one of the grand old hotels in the center of the city. It's been restored beautifully. We're meeting here, over lunch, with Luis Zuniga, a Chilean who was educated at the University of Chicago and is now the Unicef representative in Havana.
Zuniga, who looks to be in his late thirties or early forties and has a very sweet manner and a soft voice, confirms for us that the story is true. The US State Dept. does reduce its contribution to Unicef dollar for dollar against anything spent in Cuba. Incredible. He says that 3 years ago the Spanish Committee for Unicef sent some money for a project to Unicef in Cuba. Because the check went through the Chase Manhattan Bank, the money was stopped.
Unicef, he says, has only small programs in Cuba and only part of them are in projects (like the water project we saw). Much of it is in "talking, building bridges, working with social change." He works on gender concerns, etc. He is concerned about the lack of copy books, paper and pencils and says Cuba cannot continue to progress without its educational programs, so Unicef is supporting local efforts for back-yard schools and small programs of that sort.
He says school is impacted in many ways. Teachers are not focused because they are concerned about their own needs for simple things like soap, shampoo, etc.
Six to eight years ago, he says, this country was full of books. Now there is a great scarcity. There is visible damage to the society, from his point of view, in the impact on knowledge, the mastery of language, the lack of basic education skills.
He works with them to support breast feeding programs, saying Cuban women have lost their cultural tendency toward breast feeding because of their involvement in political action, work, education and just being generally busy. To go to work and then come home and have to prepare the meals and clean the house leaves little time or inclination for nursing babies. Men have to become more involved in helping in the home, but it's not easy.
He works with "baby friendly hospitals," which fulfill the ten basic steps toward breast feeding - no bottles, intensive training of doctor and health workers, training of locals for support, putting mother and child together immediately, etc. Cuba is #1 in this field. Mexico, for instance, cannot do this. The Family Doctor is the key.
Food and nutrition is a basic concern at this point.
He is optimistic about the economic reforms in Cuba.
He promotes the use of "sentinel sights" in community centers as an early warning system for health concerns.
He is helping distribute the book, "Facts for Life," and some of the messages in it are being converted into television spots by Cuban TV. It teaches things like How to Encourage Emotional Development and How to Talk to Your Child. Every teacher in every school should have a copy. "We would like to have millions of these."
"I am very far from a Communist, but this is the first country in Latin America doing things on behalf of children."
Cuba has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The US has not.
Cuba has signed on to the Plan of Action from the World Summit for Children and immediately set up a National Program setting out goals and strategies. They set up a National Program of Action and every year they assess goals, successes and failures. It is very seriously pursued by the government.
The World Summit for Children convened in 1990. 77 world leaders (heads of state) met and agreed to goals including education of at least 80% of their children, immunization for all, etc. (Paul says CCF was there, monitoring.)
"The Cuban American National Foundation (Jorge Mas Canosa, etc.) is the first to say there are many problems here. They say Guantanamo Base is an ugly place built for 3,000 military which now has 35,000 refugees, 2,000 of whom are children. But while there are problems here, there are also very real achievements. It's important to teach the outside world to understand what's going on with the people of Cuba, the children, the women, the families - the human dimension, not just the government."
"In general in Latin America, when people talk about Cuba they talk about politics, not about the people. I'll bet it's the same in the U.S."
On gender, "Women here are permanent organizers of chaos - of chaotic situations. If electricity is available at 3AM, that's when they get up to do what must be done that requires electricity. Work, school, cooking, planting, all are their responsibilities."
"In food and nutrition, the situation is similar to many African countries. In their hospitals, they have the buildings and the essential equipment, but they are lacking fundamental supplies.
Q. - Why should the world pay attention here instead of places where the emergency is obvious?
A. - African nations are in states of emergency. The response is to the emergency, with little for institution building. Here, the institutions have been built and are in place, so the appearance suggests the needs aren't so critical. But they are, and if an intelligent response is not forthcoming, what we will see is a collapse of those institutions.
Cuba produces pharmaceuticals, for example, but has problems being certified on the international scene.
Soap is very scarce. Shampoo, make-up, hairdressing, sanitary napkins, detergent. Teenage prostitution is a new problem. Women are not well represented at the higher levels in politics.
"Be patient with the Cuban authorities. Hard liners exist - they are abundant. With the others, who may not have developed the larger perspective, they need to be educated. Insist to them on a recognition of the difference - that children's issues and women's issues exist in a context apart from politics. Split things out by being specific and getting them to discuss the specifics."
Throughout this discourse our lunch was served and eaten, but it was a bit of an ordeal. There was a nervousness and lack of poise about the servers that only became clear when Gail told us this was a training school for waiters and restaurant people. It was disconcerting, to say the least, when every time the young waitress would walk through the door into the private room where we were meeting she'd call out, "Excuse me!" in a voice that suggested she wanted everyone's attention. All she wanted, actually, was to apologize for disturbing us, which she did every time she called out.
We thanked Luis Zuniga for his time and headed for the bus. We were splitting up again, this time Ivonne took Mary, Jack and I to the Education Ministry while the others went to meet with the local head of the Red Cross. (They got the better of it.) The Education Ministry was on the second floor of a building that had bureaucracy written all over it. We couldn't go in the first entrance we tried and had to walk around the block. No big deal, but once in we had to walk back to a room directly above the entrance we couldn't come in. Something about omens.
The Vice Minister of Education was tied up and couldn't meet with us, so we were welcomed by a man named Cecilio who heads the organization that produces educational materials. His counterpart was a woman by the name of Catalina who publishes school materials. A third man was Juan Alberto Ordino, who is the sub-director of the publishing house. I think he said nothing the whole time.
Cecilio tells us that education in Cuba was a massive project. The cutbacks, though the emphasis continues, have affected both materials and distribution. In the past, the USSR printed the books, though part of it was done here. Local efforts were limited to the most urgent needs. Originally there were 30 million schoolbooks, but today there are not enough to go around.
The "special circumstance," the lack of paper and the lack of energy to do the printing makes it impossible to print the replacements here. Mexico, Spain, Italy, Canada and China are providing some of the things needed.
No schools have closed. All teachers have been maintained. It is more deeply affecting the higher grade students because "we have insisted upon keeping the lower grades supplied."
Inevitably, "the level of education will decline."
In the past, there was an exchange. 20,000 Cubans per year studied in the socialist countries and 20-25,000 came here, mostly from Africa. Now, 8-10,000 come here and few go away.
College attendance, which was increasing astronomically, has flattened out because of the lack of materials and the attendant lack of opportunities.
A decision has been made to focus on providing opportunities for younger children in order to protect their opportunity to get into the system at the cost of letting things slide at the higher levels. We have tried to guarantee that all children, kindergarten through 9th grade, will have a classroom and a teacher.
Q. - How has teachers' morale been effected?
A. - It is outstanding. The more difficulties we face, the more the teachers keep up their morale - even though their income is lower in compaarison to other professionals.
Though these people were cordial, the feeling was that they were giving rote answers intended to spread the government line. This feeling was supported by the fact that so many of our questions got circular answers that we stopped asking them. Perhaps others had done the same thing, but at least they were more adept at it than these folks. There is no indication that their statistics weren't real, it just felt like we'd have been better off reading it than having it effectively read to us in dialogue form, so we bid them good-bye and headed outside.
The bus found us and we joined the rest of the gang, who evidently had a good meeting with the Red Cross, and headed out to the Finlay Institute, the pharmaceutical lab we had been hearing so much about.
After a funny series of bad turns and confusing directions, we finally arrived at the correct entrance to the Finlay Institute, a very impressively laid out complex of well-kept buildings and grounds. We were warmly welcomed by Catherine Ribas Hermelo, an energetic woman with short red hair, probably in her forties, who spoke English with a New York accent (Brooklyn, The Bronx?). The Director of International Relations for the Institute, Catherine was a very friendly and outgoing woman who made us comfortable in a nicely appointed office and talked with us for a bit before we were joined by the president of the organization, Dr. Concepcion Campa Huergo. Dr. Campa, probably also in her forties, was a very interesting looking woman. She had dark hair and the sort of facial features that one might describe as "plain," but she also had a smile that was electrifying and a sweetness of manner that was totally compelling at the same time as it was disarming. Between Charlotte's exuberance and Dr. Campa's all-encompassing sense of peacefulness, they made a powerful duo.
The Finlay Institute was opened in the late '70s as a result of an outbreak of meningococcal disease. In a situation where a death rate of 4 per 100,000 was considered an epidemic, there were 14 deaths per 100,000 by 1982 and ultimately, among children, reached a level of 162 per 100,000. By 1987 they had developed a vaccine compound for testing purposes.
Outbreaks of the disease occur in places where large groups are concentrated, as it is spread by respiration. By 1989 the vaccine was perfected and they began successfully vaccinating all youth in the country from ? months to 24 years. Brazil then developed an epidemic and asked for help and by 1990/91 they were able to respond with a percentage of the doses required.
The Institute is now working on vaccines for lepisporosis, cholera and pan-hepatitis (because of this work, Cuba is now producing its own recombinant Hepatitis B vaccine) and an AIDS vaccine.
This is clearly an impressive, internationally recognized bacteriological study, development and production facility. It now employs 700 technicians, 400 of them professors.
Q. - What is the difference in terms of success between search for Hepatitis A and B vaccine?
A. - The A vaccine worked. B didn't function as a vaccine because the human system has qualities identical to it in its make-up. (I assume she was saying they canceled each other out.)
Q. - While we know the U.S. is out, do you do business with other countries?
A. - After $37 million in sales to Brazil, we are now #1 in sales in Argentina and growing in Uruguay and other countries in the area. We do business with 20 other countries in the world. Unfortunately, despite reported cases of meningococcal B in the U.S., they will not buy from us. (No one else in the world makes the meningococcal vaccine.)
Q. - Given your situation, is it difficult to exchange information on subjects pertinent to your work?
A. - Very difficult. We have, happily, colleagues in medical conferences around the world and U.S. doctors participate in them, so we can exchange information in those situations. There are medical journals to which we can get access, and we have developed friends in many places, all of whom have been impressed with the results of our work and are trying to find ways to circumvent the embargo.
Q. - The chances of success in the AIDS project?
A. - We would be happy to help the world in this search for a cure. There are many biotech centers working in this area and the directors meet periodically and discuss progress.
Q. - Do you make a live polio vaccine?
A. - No. We use it, but don't produce it. We used to get it from the USSR. We can still get it inexpensively, but aren't considering making it because costs are too high and it requires too large a production run to make it worthwhile to produce.
Q. - What has been the effect of the "special period" on your organization?
A. - It has depressed the economy in every area. We are protected, to some degree, but can't deny an effect. In many ways. On our workers, for example, their families, their ability to access transportation. Many ways. Regarding the needs of the Institute itself; serum, materials, equipment; we are protected. As far as any profit is concerned, we keep what we need to continue and turn the rest over to the government to be used to solve the country's problems.
Q. - There is an intention to develop a pharmaceutical industry?
A. - There has been a very large investment by the government. It has been dealt with in a coherent way, but the "Special Period" came before it was fully on its feet. It was the largest investment made, but it is still not complete. For me, the greatest value is in the training of technical personnel - people trained to work in the industry. There, there has been great success. There are large numbers of very well trained people here.
(An assistant cuts in to offer) "we lack raw materials and materials for packaging. The industry was in the 3rd or 4th stage of development, according to the UN-ITA (when the Special Period hit).
Q. - Where are your people trained?
A. - Everywhere. Mainly England, France and Canada, but everywhere.
Q. - This training is paid for by the Cuban Government?
A. - Yes.
Q. - Trained in Russia?
A. - The industry in the Soviet Union wasn't developed enough to be of use. Hungary, yes.
Q. - You've recently had a neuropathy epidemic and have evidently dealt with it successfully?
A. - Yes. Scientists in Cuban research centers simply expanded their time to longer working hours. They have fallen in love with the work, not with the money it brings them. This is a tradition that has grown in this country. We are very proud of the young men and women whose passion is to do things and do them well. To work hard with high quality.
Q. - Are your products priced competitively?
A. - Yes. Price increases world-wide reflect the fact that very few plants in the world have the commitment and the capacity to produce high quality products.
Q. - Do you carry malpractice insurance?
A. - (She goes into a long story on insurance, the net result of which is that they don't have - perhaps can't get or afford - malpractice insurance. Since they are backed by the government, the question may be off-point. But she does say "of course we cooperate with and fulfill all international requirements.")
As the hour is late and we have yet another meeting, we have to break up. Charlotte (the redhead), it turns out, is from New York and has lived here for 35 years. It was quite a meeting and all came away agreed that Dr. Campa is an extraordinary and charming woman.
We race to the hotel for a quick change and then back into the bus for dinner at the Aljiver Restaurant with Reverend Raul Suarez, a Baptist Minister who is head of the Cuban Ecumenical Council and also a member of Parliament. The Aljiver is a very nice, wide-open place where one dines on covered patios. The host, whose name I never got clear on, is a very sweet, humble man and seems intent on taking good care of us.
Rev. Suarez is a small, quiet man who emanates a sense of peaceful passion, if that isn't a contradiction in terms. Because he cooperated by receiving and distributing a shipment of food and medical supplies sent in defiance of the embargo by a group of American Christian activists known as Pastors for Peace, he was denounced by the U.S. State Department as being "the equivalent of a Colombian drug dealer, for receiving contraband goods."
Paul, in introducing Suarez, says he met him at a time when "we knew the Cuban revolution was only the first of many that had to take place in Latin America."
Paul tells that when he was head of Church World Service he went to Moscow, from there to Hanoi and down the Ho Chi Minh Trail by truck to get to Pnom Penh, Cambodia in the late '70s. At that time, though much help was needed there, the Vietnamese controlling Cambodia wouldn't allow, because of the bitterness of the war, American aid organizations in to help, nor would they allow international organizations to stay if an American was in charge.
He got the idea that a socialist country with the appropriately trained personnel could help, so went to Havana, where he hooked up with Rev. Suarez through the Ecumenical Council. Between them, they worked out an approach to the government and got the approval. Fourteen Cuban doctors and aid specialists were sent immediately and Cuba has had a humanitarian presence in Cambodia ever since.
It was also, it seemed from the tenor of Paul's presentation, the beginnings of a thaw between the Cuban Government and the religious community here.
Rev. Suarez, who heads not only the Ecumenical Council but also the Martin Luther King Center in Havana, has been a constant voice for rapprochement between the secular government and the religious forces. Apparently, he has had considerable success.
As he speaks, Ivonne translates (again with Janet and Gail helping out and/or making corrections from time to time).
- There are 54 Protestant denominations in Cuba and 14 seminaries which are shared among them. As a result of the work of Suarez and others, in 1990 Castro agreed to a dialogue with religious leaders - and agreed that it be televised. This addressed (and began) a reconciliation of the humane values of the Revolution and the Christian values of the church. It showed that those committed to the values of the church were also working for the betterment of the country.
This is not always a simple thing to do, he says, because a significant part of "the theology in our churches was conservative." For example, five months ago he got a FAX asking him to receive a delegation of religious people from the U.S. and Russia. When he asked who the leader of the delegation would be, he was told Jerry Falwell. He turned them down because of his distaste for the link between the religious right and the political right and the "vertical" nature of their religious experience. He distrusts a commitment to certain kinds of religious values without concern for social conditions. "The Bible requires integration of man, woman and spirit. The Revolution brought jobs for men and women and projects that affirmed their dignity." He is now working in concert with the government on projects that serve both of these ends.
Q. - What is the relationship of the religious right sects with the government?
A. - All churches deal with the Minister of Justice. We have separation of church and state, but all religious groups have relations with the government through this office.
Q. - Are there any sects that are not legal? A. - Yes, the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Q. - Is Conscientious Objector status recognized?
A. - Yes, there is an alternative for that, the Young People's Working Army, which works in various areas of the community.
Q. - What is your relationship with the Catholics?
A. - They have never been part of the Ecumenical Council. We have normal relations, but not what we wish we had. We have more solidarity with the Revolution, they have maintained their distance. We recognize that the Revolution has made many mistakes and at the same time we let the leaders know we don't play around with those who want to destroy the Revolution.
Now we have to find ways to make changes. But capitalism where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is not what we want in Cuba. Nor do we want the one in Germany. I don't know if it's possible, but I wish for something else. By my Christian faith, I am a socialist in the best sense of the word. I say no to materialism, to individualism. I believe in social justice. I don't know what "ism" it is, but I hope I find it. When I work in Parliament and in the church, I am in favor of that (an alternative to the destructive systems now extant).
Q. - What is the ratio of Catholics to Protestants? What are the numbers?
A. - Setting aside the Afro-Cuban religion and Catholics who are baptized and then stay away from the church, committed Catholics are fewer in number than committed Protestants. There are 400 local congregations and three seminaries, with 60,000 Baptists in Cuba. Catholics have 660 parishes, with 200+ priests. (I missed the total number of Protestants.) The Afro-Cuban religion is growing.
Q. - How has the role of the National Assembly in Parliament changed?
A. - Cuba has had two election laws during the Revolutionary period. In the first, 50% of the deputies were directly elected, the other 50% were appointed "by the finger." (Chosen by the powers that be.) The new law holds that all deputies are elected by secret ballot, so there is more democracy, but it has to keep improving.
Now, a voter can choose to vote or not, but there is a finite number of names on the ballot. It's not really a choice, as it would be where you choose 5 names out of 20. These five deputies are appointed, and you can vote yes or no on each one, but it's not really democracy. It is an error of the Socialist system when Party and government are confused.
Now we begin with a new law and a new Parliament. Especially with Alarcon, there is more autonomy. I was asked to a meeting of a commission, which was a surprise. Another surprise was the presence there of researchers. There were strong debates, one on making space for non-governmental organizations. A government deputy argued against space for NGOs. We ganged up on him to such an extent that the next meeting will only discuss NGOs. In that debate, Alarcon and Robaina (sp?) agreed with us and said Cuba's foreign policy must be made by the State, the Parliament and the NGOs. That statement was on television. Before, that wouldn't have been on television.
The government has realized that debate is important. "We don't all have to think alike," said Robaina.
There is still much unnecessary talk (praise for Fidel and other leaders), but things are changing. "We tell the state 'no manipulation and no control. We will find solutions, the solutions cannot come from on high.' In that sense I am a Baptist."
"We want to make changes not because the U.S. demands them, but because we need them. We cannot support a policy that is imposed by force or 'conditions;' these strings attached come from the last century. When we fought for independence, the U.S. placed an amendment (the Platt Amendment) in our Constitution which said they could intervene (at will). No more. The U.S. cannot continue imposing its will on other parts of the world. To do so is damaging to the people of the U.S."
Cuba has to work more on human rights, has to change economic policies, has to work more on programs for the people, but because we need it, not because it is imposed.
Q. - You mentioned the Martin Luther King Center. Can you tell us about that?
A. - As the name suggests, it is an organization whose work is based upon the principles of non-violence and constructive social engagement of Dr. Martin Luther King. He is a symbol for many of us of ways in which a Christian commitment means working to resolve society's ills. A "horizontal" religion. My church, you should understand, is named the Ebeneezer Baptist Church (after King's church.).
Q. - Can you say more about the African sects?
A. - We were taught that these sects were Satanistic, but have found that it is a real experience, that it is growing in popularity and involves whites as well as blacks. It is, perhaps, a reaction to the fact that many churches in Cuba have turned white. Our population is made up of 60% blacks and those with black blood. There is a saying in Cuba, "If you don't have the Congo in your blood, you have the Carabalie (sp?)." (You have some part of Africa in you.) Historically, the majority of our churches were sponsored by churches in the U.S. South. Their racism spilled over, and this was a problem we had to deal with. We came to the realization that Santeria, socially speaking, had value. The slaves refused to worship the God of the slave owner. The African was forced by the Catholics to worship white saints, so today each saint in Catholic Cuba has its African counterpart. Colors identified with each of the saints (for example, white for the Virgin), because colors have spiritual significance for Africans, came to stand for the African spiritual counterpart. In my neighborhood 70% of Afro-Cubans were Santeria, so I began to find ways to reach out, to apologize to the African population. Now, the membership in my church is growing. Now, in addition to being called a Communist I'm called a Santero. I'm not, but I am a friend of both, and have been working with the teenagers in my community to help promote their sense of self-esteem and self-value, even within Santero. "The problem is not those who believe differently, the problem is those who believe in nothing."
(His words, uttered with great conviction and utter simplicity, were very impressive. As the meeting was taking place, we were at the same time eating great portions of the best food I had so far eaten in Cuba, served quietly and with immense grace by the owner of the restaurant. It felt to me as though he was thus expressing his appreciation, perhaps reverence, for Rev. Suarez.)
Soon it was time to take our leave, and each of us took a moment to try to express our appreciation to Rev. Suarez for giving us an important insight into the situation in his country. And then it was back into the bus and to the hotel for what was left of the night. Another early morning loomed.