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Column 120114 Wall

Monday, December 1, 2014

Our Summer 2014 Trip to Mexico and the Island-nation of Cuba

By Allan Wall

My family and I visit Mexico each summer.  This past summer, while visiting Mexico, we took a side trip to the island-nation of Cuba, where we spent a week.  It was a fascinating visit.

 

Americans are forbidden by the U.S. government to visit Cuba as tourists, but are allowed to visit Cuba for cultural, scientific or religious reasons.  It was under the religious exception that we visited.

 

Our local church in the United States has for years been sending money to a Cuban preacher, yet nobody in our church had ever visited Cuba.  I suggested we send somebody, so the church sent me, along with my wife and our two sons.

 

We flew out of the Mexico City airport on a Cubana airline plane, thus putting us under Cuban authority from our departure.

 

There were a number of Mexicans on the flight, some of them members of a musical group going to Havana to perform in a festival.

 

We landed at Havana airport and the next day took a long taxi trip to the provincial city where the preacher resides.  We stayed there three days, and then returned to Havana, where we spent a day before flying out early the following morning.

 

In a one-week visit we were able to experience a broad cross-section of Cuba.  We spent time in the capital Havana, in a smaller provincial city, plus we saw a lot of scenery and spent time with regular Cubans.

 

We found the Cuban people to be very friendly, and we never had any negative experiences with anybody during our week there.

 

In recent years there has been some opening up of Cuban society.   Nevertheless, it is still a communist country with everything that implies.  The Castro brothers (Fidel and Raul) have been in power there since Eisenhower was president of the United States.  Multiparty elections are not held and dissidents are still repressed.

 

Physically, the island of Cuba is beautiful, as Christopher Columbus pointed out way back in 1492.  From an agricultural standpoint, it’s quite fertile.  I saw fields of rice, sugarcane, maize and bananas.

 

Cuba has two currencies, the CUP (principally for Cubans), and the CUC (mainly for non-Cubans).  That’s complicated.

 

Thanks to a common Spanish heritage, Cuba shares cultural characteristics with Mexico.  But there are differences.

 

Mexicans and Cubans both speak Spanish, but the Cuban dialect differs noticeably from how Mexicans speak.  Being more accustomed to Mexican Spanish, I found the Cuban variety difficult at times, but was able to communicate.

 

The food is different, albeit with some common elements.  Cubans don’t eat tortillas or chili.  The main Cuban dish is rice and beans.  The principal meat is pork, prepared in various forms.  They also eat chicken and seafood.  The main soft drinks are Cuban-produced.

 

Church attendance is very low in Cuba.  It’s been estimated that only 2% of the population attends services on Sunday, in any church, Catholic or Protestant.  The religious freedom situation has improved and churches can carry on activities openly.  Nevertheless, they must be registered and are closely monitored.  If they are accused of somehow opposing the regime they can get into trouble.

 

Our visit with the Christians in the provincial city went well.  We spent time with the Cuban preacher, his family, and people in the two congregations in which he preaches.  We attended both services on Sunday, and in one congregation a traditional pig roast was held, with pork served for everybody.

 

There is a Bible shortage in Cuba, and we delivered some Spanish Bibles donated by friends in Mexico.

 

The preacher works hard, while maintaining good relations with local communist authorities.  We were careful not to say or do anything to get him into trouble.  We weren’t there to argue about politics.

 

After our return stateside, I gave a report to my congregation about our trip to Cuba and these churches, with plenty of photographs taken by my wife and sons.

 

The city of Havana is certainly worth visiting.  Some of it reminded me of the Mexican city of Veracruz, on the Gulf.

 

The old Spanish colonial architecture in Havana includes forts and churches.  They were in good condition.

 

Many residential buildings are now decadent and run-down, but you can tell they were once elegant.

 

In Cuba, signs with Communist propaganda are frequently encountered on streets and highways, extolling the virtues of communism and exhorting Cubans to keep up the communism.  Images of the Castro brothers and Che Guevara, the Argentine who helped establish the communist government, are common.

 

The Cuban government has built a cult around Che Guevara, and has constructed a massive monument in Santa Clara where Guevara’s remains are interred.

 

Many Mexican leftists see Cuba as a model for Mexico, but the Cubans I met were poorer than the Mexicans I know in Mexico.  The economic level in Cuba is low and there is an acute shortage of basic consumer goods.

 

In Mexico, even in poor neighborhoods there are mom and pop stores selling food items.  I didn’t see that in Cuba.  The homes we visited had a real scarcity of basic goods.

 

In Havana I saw people who appeared to be homeless.  In contrast, we saw the nice houses in which communist officials reside.  In the words of George Orwell, some “are more equal than others.”

 

In Cuba you can see (and ride in) classic American automobiles from the 1950s, which resourceful Cubans have kept running since that decade.  It was great seeing all those old cars still in operation.  Our last night in Cuba we took a one-hour ride in a ’57 Ford Fairlane convertible (with a Mercedes engine).

 

After a week in Cuba we flew back to Mexico in a Cubana passenger plane.  After disembarking and entering the Mexico City terminal, we felt we were in a free country again.

 

All in all, we had a good visit to Cuba.  I hope we can go again someday.

 

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Allan Wall, an educator, resided in Mexico for many years.  His website is located at http://www.allanwall.info.

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