Gail Reed, journalist and consultant
Rev. Thomas Wenski, Auxiliary Bishop of Miami; President, Catholic Charities
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, a discussion of life inside Cuba.
REV. THOMAS WENSKI: I’m certainly very hopeful and I like to tell people that hope is not always the same thing as optimism. Optimism is a secular value and when we look at the obstacles that still face Cuba and Cuba’s relationship with its neighbors, it’s oftentimes very hard to be optimistic.
PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
Last week we talked with two policy experts about the changing relationship between the US and Cuba. This week we look at things from the perspective of ordinary Cubans. Our guests are two Americans who’ve had a long-term relationship with the people of Cuba.
WENSKI: The Cuban situation is increasingly desperate. I think most Cubans wake up in the morning and their challenge is to figure out how they will eat and feed their children that day. So that there are increasing social needs and human needs.
PORTER: This is Bishop Thomas Wenski. He’s the Auxiliary Bishop of Miami and President of Catholic Charities. He’s visited Cuba many times, including as part of Pope John Paul II’s delegation in early 1998. The Bishop is happy to see that the Cuban government is allowing the Catholic charitable organization called “Caritas” operate in Cuba.
WENSKI: Caritas is trying to find for itself the space in order to function in Cuba. And Caritas was not allowed to function in Cuba until recently. It was only after 1993 that the Cuban government allowed the Church the space to operate its charitable arm. And so this is a very important development for the Church down there. It’s something that really has helped the Church to grow on the island and to influence many, many people and to also help people in their needs.
PORTER: In the years that you’ve been involved in the issue have you seen a change? Are things better? Are things worse? And in what way?
WENSKI: Of course there’s some improvement in the fact that the Church has organized charity societies or charity organizations in, on all its levels—on the diocesan level, on the national level and also on the parish level. However, it still operates under many restrictions. It’s difficult for them to get supplies sometimes. It’s difficult for them to transport things. It’s difficult for the Church to buy, for example, a van, to be used for those purposes. And again, right now under the Cuban system the government is the sole owner of everything, so that even when Caritas receives a shipment of medicines or something like that, it has to work very closely with the government to store them and to distribute them. But Caritas I think has developed some very positive relationships with government officials. They have what they call mixed commissions, in which church representatives meet with government representatives in the Ministry of Health or whatever ministry is concerned in a particular area. And Caritas proposes what they want to do and they don’t always get what they want. They don’t always have the latitude that they would desire to expand their social services, but they are gaining space. And that’s certainly the good news of the past several years.
PORTER: The Pope made a high profile trip to Cuba this year. Can you tell us, first of all, what the goal of the trip was, and secondly, do you think it was met?
WENSKI: Well, again, I think the goal of the Pope’s visit was expressed in the motto of the visit that appeared on the posters of the Pope, with the Pope’s picture and it basically said “John Paul II: Messenger of Hope and Truth.” And I think the Pope went to Cuba to be just that; a messenger of the truth and a messenger of hope. I think he, in those terms the visit succeeded tremendously. It was a unforgettable experience and I attended each of the papal masses in Cuba. One anecdote I could share with you is that the one gentleman that I’ve known from my many visits to Cuba was my driver during the Pope’s visit and I had known that this man had least on two occasions had tried to go to Miami on a raft. He was an unsuccessful rafter. And both times he was stopped and detained for a few days by Cuban authorities and then released. And so as he was driving me back to the airport right after the Pope’s visit, I said to him, “Well, what do you think?” And he looked at me and he says, “Well,” he says, “Father, I think maybe I don’t have to go to Miami anymore.” And so I think in that sense he, the Pope, communicated to him a sense of hope.
And that’s something that’s very important today in Cuba because many people are essentially without hope. And that is evidenced by the huge numbers that just want to leave Cuba. That do not see a future in Cuba. And indeed if the Pope can provide a, the hope for a better future then that will indeed help save Cuban culture and Cuban identity.
PORTER: What’s your sense of religious freedom in Cuba at the moment?
WENSKI: The religious freedom is, needs to develop further. There’s been some progress and there’s much progress to be made. I think one of the things to be acknowledged is that even in the early days of the Revolution the Communists did not close churches down. They did not try to make the Church a national church as was done in China or to basically prohibit public worship as was done in Czechoslovakia and other places. However, in the early days of the Revolution if you practiced your faith you suffered consequences. You lost opportunities for employment or education. Even though the mass was being said on Sunday, the activity of the Church was restricted pretty much to that, to worship. The numbers of people interested in religion and in religious values and religious questions is certainly growing. And we also see a phenomena where people that had been raised Catholic and perhaps gave up the practice of their faith because of either fear or because of convenience, because they didn’t want to lose out on a job opportunity or an educational scholarship, etc., these people are now coming back to the Church. And I think this is perhaps one of the areas where there is great hope in Cuba, in the fact that people had stayed in the Church, and many times because of their remaining in the Church suffered from those who left the Church and maybe mocked them and made fun of them and oftentimes perhaps were even the ones that were punishing them for their religious practice, these people are coming back to church and in the church, the ones that stayed are welcoming the ones that are coming back. And there is in fact taking place on that level real reconciliation. If the Church can model reconciliation then perhaps a national reconciliation could take place in which some substantial changes could happen within Cuban society.
And also, one of the things before we get off on the Pope’s visit, the efforts going into preparing for the Pope’s visit I think also helped in the reconstruction of civil society. Because you had now people maybe working for the Church but having to organize things. Like how to, the logistical support of how you move these people from point A to point B to attend this mass and to organize this reception and this particular choir. All this. You’re basically teaching people do on their own without waiting for Big Brother to give authorization or to mobilize.
PORTER: You mentioned the idea of reconciliation. We’ve seen in other societies, in South Africa and in Guatemala, and in other places, the Truth and Reconciliation committees, commissions, whatever you want to call them, as sort of a way of getting past the past. Do you think that maybe in a future Cuba there will be a need for that kind of thing?
WENSKI: Very likely. I think there could very well be something like that. I think again the role of the Church is very important because in any society, especially when you look at developing societies—and Cuba is part of the developing world—but in many of these smaller countries the only strong institutions that you find are the Army and the Church. And I would say that even though the Church is not particularly strong in Cuba as compared to other countries, like Poland for example, it is nevertheless an institution that has a long history in Cuban society and it is still a very vital part of Cuban society. So that if you’re looking for a future of Cuba that is hopeful and a future that is more peaceful than conflictual then the Church has to play a very important role. Because I don’t think any society gains by just putting all their eggs in one basket and saying “Let’s count on the Army.” I think you have to encourage the growth of organizations that are not tied to the government, like the Church, and like other voluntary organizations, which is civil society. And to the measure that these grow, then you have greater possibilities for the evolution of a functioning—and functional—democracy.
PORTER: You remain hopeful about the situation in Cuba?
WENSKI: I’m certainly very hopeful and I like to tell people that hope is not always the same thing as optimism. Optimism is a secular value and when we look at the obstacles that still face Cuba and Cuba’s relationship with its neighbors, it’s oftentimes very hard to be optimistic. But since hope is a theological virtue and hope is often driven by Divine providence, I think certainly there is great reasons to be hopeful in Cuba.
PORTER: Thomas Wenski is the Auxiliary Bishop of Miami and President of Catholic Charities. In a moment, we’ll hear from an American who’s lived in Cuba for the last twenty years.
REED: There’s a very strong dose of interracial, interethnic, presence in Cuba. Very rich culture. And an extraordinarily welcoming population. So put all of that together and even without the political fascination that you might have for the country, it’s an interesting place to be.
PORTER: This is the second of a two-part Common Ground series on changes in Cuba and in the US-Cuban relationship. Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
PORTER: Gail Reed was born in Chicago. She became a journalist, and then in 1978, she moved to Cuba and she’s lived there ever since.
REED: I was involved in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War, which perhaps some of your listeners remember as history. But it was still part of some of our lives. And went there as part of the student movement trips that were going at the late `60s, early `70s. Became very much involved in work with Cuba and in the process met a Cuban who I subsequently decided to marry and went to the island. I think I would have continued work with Cuba and with some of the issues surrounding Cuba, but I certainly wouldn’t have moved there. It was a big decision for me to move.
PORTER: I’m sure it was. And even in 1998 it’s a big deal for an American to be living in Cuba. But in 1988? In 1978? An American living in Cuba? That—how did that feel? I mean, to be at sort of the height of the Cold War?
REED: Well, it was very, it was interesting. Because on any given day you were, your presence in Cuba according to US law was either legal or illegal. As you probably remember during the Carter years, the travel ban was lifted, completely, and then completely re-established, smacked right on again, during the first years of Reagan. So we had these ups and downs. I have a very dear friend who’s a US physician in Cuba. And she’s just given up trying to figure out whether her presence is legal or illegal because in fact the only people that can be in Cuba on a long-term basis are either US government officials or what they call “regularly working journalists,” as the law now stands. So that’s been a kind of a permanent piece of instability. It’s a very odd feeling to, you know, you’re paying your taxes but you’re still not sure if you’re doing everything you’re supposed to according to US government stipulations. And it also illustrates to me the ups and downs, the inconsistencies, in US policy toward Cuba over the years. You feel it every day.
In terms of what it’s been like to live in Cuba, I’d say it has been fascinating from the very beginning. Cuba is a very special place, not only because it has this Revolution which is a big question mark to most of us, but also it’s a very special place because the mix of people in Cuba is very special. There’s a very strong sense of nation in Cuba. There’s a very strong dose of interracial, interethnic, presence in Cuba. Very rich culture. And an extraordinarily welcoming population. So put all of that together and even without the political fascination that you might have for the country, it’s an interesting place to be.
PORTER: Let’s talk about the Cuban people and the condition they find themselves in now. How would you describe, over your tenure in Cuba, the lifestyle, the humanitarian conditions, how people get by day-to-day?
REED: Well, this latest period of the economic crisis since the early `90s has been excruciating. It’s been a very, very painful process for nearly every family in Cuba, I would say. And the reason for that is not just the economic bottoming out that occurred in the early `90s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Soviet aid, and also with the strengthening of the US embargo on Cuba. But it has had these tremendous repercussions throughout the fabric of Cuban society. So that, for example, for years and years and years, people had their standard of living, their personal standard of living, inching ahead every year. And you had a situation in which people who had been farmers or manual laborers were basically seeing their kids, in the majority, going to college. And so there was a sense of optimism within the society at large. Despite all the many problems that you find in Cuba there was a sense of optimism. And I think that that’s one of the big casualties of this economic crisis. Because there’s a sense of losing your bearings. Where are we headed?
And especially for young people, it’s very, very disconcerting. Because the way the economic crisis has acted on Cuba means that it’s kind of turned things topsy-turvy. There’s no more assurances that because you have a college education that you’ll be able to work in your field. In fact, you might make a lot more money as a taxi driver or as a doorman at a hotel than you might as a pediatrician. And that’s all due to this period of dollarization of the economy and these influences that have kind of come in willy nilly, very necessary to keeping things afloat when they lost 85% of their foreign trade. But at the same time just wreak havoc with the whole society at large. You see a reappearance of prostitution. You’re seeing a reappearance of kind of the hustle—what I call the hustler mentality. A lack of respect for work in some cases. And what’s been sort of the prize jewel of Cuban social relations, which has been a real kind of human solidarity, is now feeling the tremors.
PORTER: Do you detect, what I’ve heard others comment on, the generational shift? You mentioned young people, on the way they’re feeling. They also don’t know what life was like before the Revolution. And do you see, do you detect a difference in their attitudes?
REED: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I don’t know how you solve that problem. I mean, you can’t, there’s nothing like experiencing something in your own skin. So I don’t know how any society solves this one. You know, and we remember when our parents said, “oh, you know, what it was like, and the whole place going you know where in a hand-basket, and how can…” Well, that’s a normal generation gap, I guess. In Cuba, there’s a certain bitterness among young people. Because they feel they were promised many things that it’s very unclear if they’re going to get. And their values are also, the values of the whole society are in question. So they’re obviously the ones that are doing most of the questioning. And I think that it’s very difficult for a young person to live through this process and not say, “Well, why don’t we just change the whole thing?” Because as you say, they didn’t live through any pre-1959 situation where by all objectives accounts Cuba was pretty much a brothel and the Mafia was building hotels like crazy and you had this incredible disparity between the poverty in the countryside and the city. And you could go on and on and on. The racial dynamics, the outright racism was a patent factor in Cuban society.
PORTER: Over the course of your tenure in Cuba what about Cuban attitudes toward America? How have they changed over that period of time?
REED: Cubans have always admired Americans. They think that people in the States are go-getters and know how to get things done and have technological capabilities that they would love to have. I think there’s also, to be honest though, a certain mentality which you don’t find just in Cuba. Which is sort of a, “it’s imported it must be better” mentality. Which is a very unfortunate thing. You find it throughout Latin America in a lot of ways. I mean, the United States has done a good job of selling itself. And it’s a certain lack of confidence underneath in your own ability to produce quality. Your own ability to, as a society, produce brilliant things. And if there’s one thing that Cuba has done it’s produce brilliant things. All the way from the National Ballet and Jose Martí, to these great baseball players we’re now seeing even in the States.
PORTER: And cigars and…
REED: And cigars, and whether you like him or not, Fidel Castro is one of the great figures of the Twentieth Century.
PORTER: And rum, too. [laughing]
REED: Well, yes.
PORTER: Gail, I’m sure that because of the relationship between our governments, Americans and their lack of contact with Cuba, they’ve missed out on an awful lot. Tell us about what it is that Americans have lost out on by not having contact with Cuba for all these years?
REED: You mean besides the rum and the cigars, and the… [laughing]
REED: All those obvious good things.
REED: I think Cubans are real soul mates to Americans in a lot of ways. It’s very much illustrated by their sense of humor which is very piquant, very irreverent. To an extent that probably more Americans would not expect. The primary targets for jokes in Cuba can be their own national leaders and that’s a great, great starting point to all of the foibles and problems that people face every day in the bureaucracy of Cuban society. And to the Pope himself. I mean, when the Pope went to Cuba in January, it was a spectacle. It was something just phenomenal. And everybody turned out: Catholic, non-Catholic; it was, on a scale of 1-to-10 the, it was a 10. It was definitely a ten. The Brazilian soap opera stars that visited a week later were probably an eight. There’s a great sense of spectacle in Cuba. But this whole visit was not only surrounded by a tremendous mobilization of people and press from around the world. You know, had two, three, four floors of hotels being totally overtaken by NBC, ABC, CNN, so on and so forth; and the rest of the world’s press.
But you also had a spate of jokes that went around Cuba, for at least two months before and a month after. And it was like somebody was manufacturing the stuff. It was amazing. There must have been 50, 60. 70 of these jokes that became part of Cuban culture. Were just sort of, mowed into the mulch of Cuban culture. And some very funny jokes that made both Fidel Castro and the Pope the butt of the jokes. I mean, I’ll tell one if you really want to hear one.
PORTER: We want to hear one, Gail.
REED: All right, I’ll, it’s OK. You’ve forced me. As you know, Cuba has a ration system for food and the situation has been very, very tense in the past two or three years, especially. So the joke goes like this. The Pope gets to Cuba and he’s having a very serious conversation with Castro and he says, “Look, you know, Fidel, I get what you’re trying to do but don’t you think you could give at least one more chicken to everybody a month? I mean, just one more chicken?” And Castro says, “Well, you know, Your Holiness, one more chicken a person, I don’t think we can manage, but maybe one more chicken a family.” And the Pope just beams, he is so happy. He says, “All right, one more chicken a family. Thank you very much Dr. Castro. That’s wonderful. And by the way, remind me to tell you a little something just before I leave.” So the Pope comes to the end of a very successful visit and he’s going up the stairs to the plane, the red carpet is out. And Fidel is waving good-bye to him and suddenly remembers that he’s forgotten to ask the Pope what he wanted to tell him. So he races up the stairs and he says, “Your Holiness, Your Holiness, there’s something you wanted to tell me.” And the Pope leans over and whispers in his ear, “Fidel, God does not exist.” And Fidel says, “The chickens don’t either.”
[both Reed and Porter laughing]
REED: This is the kind of, I mean, there were more, you know, more risqué kind of jokes that you won’t want told on the radio. But this is the tenor of the stuff that was going on. And I just think Cubans are delightful in the way that they manage to, even the worse kind of dismay and the worst kind of economic situation, they really have a joie de vivre that shines through.
PORTER: Gail Reed, thank you very much.
REED: You’re welcome.
PORTER: Our guest has been Gail Reed, an American free-lance journalist in Cuba. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
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