By Kenneth D. MacHarg
With Mr. Obama off to Cuba for the first presidential visit in over 80 years, there is much to be hoped for in the new rapprochement between that nation and the United States.
However, according to a recent article in Britain’s Guardian Weekly newspaper, there are some sobering side issues that aren’t what you expected and are seriously concerning.
The new openness between the two countries will change Cuba for sure according to the newspaper.
“Every time I return, something else I know has changed,” says María Jimena Duzán, a Colombian writer who has been visiting Havana for decades. “The Americans are here, and that changes everything….”
While there are those who hope that those changes will be for the improvement of the Cuban people, some of them reflect ominous trends.
The most staggering change is, of course, the arrival of the Americans,” (the Guardian said,)…reverting Cuba to a 21st-century variation of its old role: the naughty weekend in the sun, music and sleaze – the exploitative playground that enraged Fidel Castro, his brother and Che Guevara sufficiently to overthrow it….
Havana is by far the safest Latin American capital; drug consumption is minuscule and organized crime of the kind known to Mexico City, Bogotá or San Salvador is nonexistent. But no multinational corporation will be as anxious to invest in the newly open Cuban market than the Mexican narco-cartel Los Zetas, which controls the Caribbean…and whose product can cater in its pure and expensive form to Cuba’s partying visitors, and as basic bazuco, crack, for the local poor….
(Esther) Cardosa is among Cuba’s great creative figures, an actress and director of drama whose story has been central to the renaissance of independent, innovative and surreally creative Cuban drama during the 80s and 90s….
But while Havana prepares for construction and renovation on a massive scale, the beautiful three-tier stage space at her theatre Casa Gaia – on what she thinks could become Havana’s “cultural corridor” – with performance areas both covered and al fresco, is like many of Havana’s lovelier buildings, falling down.
Cardosa flies to Madrid and Toronto in search of help and money, for what is not only her dream but something of Cuba she wants the world to see in addition to peeling plaster, vintage Chevrolets, cheap flesh and Cuba’s superlative jazz commodified for the mid-brow tourist palette. “A real, creative and living Cuba, which speaks of our art, passion, history, talent and drama”, she says. But all she hears in response from the “investors” is whether her property would be suitable for “conversion into a VIP hotel for prostitution….”
Wait a minute. The staggering changes to Cuba and its beleaguered society will be a massive investment of narco-money to prey on the addictions of Cuba’s “partying visitors” and an influx of business people who want to transform a proposed, high-quality performance center into a “VIP hotel for prostitution”?
One could become very discouraged by these reports and the pervading sense of evil and deep sin in those who would further destroy a country that has suffered through hardship, hunger, poverty and dictatorship for fifty-five years.
But there is hope that is largely unknown by North Americans, including one of the current presidential candidates who recently erroneously said, “To the best of my knowledge, not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba.”
That hope is the church, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, but particularly the Evangelical or Protestant churches that exist and are a growing, dynamic force in the country.
The same Guardian newspaper reported last year that The island has experienced a religious revival of sorts in the past 25 years….(t)he Catholic church and other denominations have come a long way from the 1960s and 70s, when Fidel Castro’s revolution sent religious believers to labor camps and enshrined atheism in the constitution.
Today, Christmas and Good Friday are national holidays once more. Churchgoers no longer face official discrimination. For the first time in five decades, the government has given the (Catholic) church permission to build a cathedral. And Catholic authorities face increasing competition from fast-growing evangelical denominations, many with close ties to US churches. “There is freedom of worship now…,” said the Rev Roberto Betancourt, the priest at Our Lady of Regla, one of Cuba’s landmark churches.”
On the Evangelical side, (W)hile Catholic leaders are trying to win them back with an institutional resurgence, evangelical Christians are going into the streets to do it. “We are living in a society that has lost its values,” said Yoel Guevara, a 32-year-old evangelical pastor. “Christ gives them back….”
Guevara’s group is affiliated with Victory Outreach International, a Pentecostal order founded on the streets of Los Angeles that is known for evangelizing among addicts, inmates and the homeless.
In Cuba, the group has no church, but Cuban authorities allow them to congregate Sunday mornings for worship along Havana’s Malecón seawall. They bring their own generator to power the microphone and the speakers, attracting hundreds.
“The presence of Christ is strong where sin is abundant,” said Daniel Delis, wearing long dreadlocks, after a small church weeknight service in a fellow member’s home. He said his faith helped him overcome an addiction to marijuana.
The Pentecostal group says it goes out on weekend nights to walk among the revellers along Havana’s seawall…occasionally facing police harassment.
In 2011, CNN reported, (A)s the country confronts hard times, followers have come out of the shadows, turning to religion to meet both economic and spiritual needs…”.
The Rev. Marcial Miguel Hernandez is the pastor of a Pentecostal church and the president of Cuba’s National Council of Churches.
“The crisis is an opportunity for faith,” he told CNN. “Crisis is God’s opportunity for the church to show its solidarity and love for our neighbor….”
Rita Suarez, a television worker who frequents Hernandez’s Free Evangelical Church, said many people were seeking spiritual guidance.
“When we have faith, we find the strength to make things work in this new scenario,” she said.
Since the 1980s, the number of evangelicals in Cuba has more than tripled to one million, according to the National Council of Churches.
Polly and I saw that excitement, growth and enthusiasm when we led a several-day workshop at a church in Havana almost a decade ago. Some participants walked at least two hours one way each day to attend the event. And, they talked with passion about the church there. Others donated their entire monthly ration of chicken or fish so the group could eat.
They told us of the exploding expansion of churches which were crowded into buildings that needed to be expanded. However, government regulations prohibited any church construction or addition. So, congregations, such as the one where we held our meetings, adapted by adding a covered roof-top terrace to provide space and protect from the intense sun.
I will never forget one participant, a retired university professor, who told me privately that his group was looking forward to the day when they could own their own facility and expand their work. I reminded him that that under current law they couldn’t do that.
With tears in his eyes he smiled at me and said, “No, but…some day when we are free……”
While outside churches and mission groups should and will play an increasing role in supporting the growing Evangelical population in Cuba, it will be Cuban Christians themselves who must and, I believe, will become the force that helps their nation to resist the outside influences from groups such as the narco-traficantes and unscrupulous business people who would convert a potential cultural center into a place of sin and evil.
We and Cubans must urgently pray together that the Lord will be made known during these exciting and demanding times.
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