Many in the U.S. tend to think of foreign places and people in broad stereotypes.
The French have their wine, cheese and strange vowels, while the Germans love beer and harsh consonants in words a mile long.
It’s not that there’s no truth to these cultural glimpses, but they’re dangerous if they aren’t balanced by a broader and more complex picture of a culture or country.
Cuba is, indeed, a place of cigars and old U.S. cars. It is true the Cubans love baseball and that Cuban music is a beloved art form around the globe.
But it’s also the case that the Cuban people are as gloriously diverse as any.
For example, in contrast to expectations, there is a vibrant and numerous Baptist community in Cuba. These churches are themselves quite diverse – some very conservative, some very progressive.
The one thing they all share in common today is that they are in crisis.
The crisis is one of health, as COVID-19 rages across the island. The crisis is one of economics as the price of most essentials has risen exponentially in recent years. And the crisis today, as you are likely aware, a crisis of politics.
For the first time in a very long time, people have taken to the streets in protest.
The people are rightly angry at their incompetent government that seeks to control too much and provide too little.
And they are rightly outraged at the embargo of the United States that causes many more problems than it solves. It is clearly motivated more by our own domestic politics than by what will actually help the Cuban people.
Without question, the Cuban revolution was a tragic human rights disaster. There are political prisoners in jail.
But it is easy to make the argument that had our engagement with Cuba been more consistently like that of our relationship to China, things might have evolved much differently.
What we know for certain is that the Cuban people need our help.
They are sick with escalating numbers dying of COVID-19. They are increasingly destitute as inflation continues to rage. And they are rightly angry at the inept responses of a government that worries much more about power than people.
I first visited the island in 2005. I’ve been twice more in recent years.
I went legally because the congregation I served (Kirkwood Baptist in St. Louis) had a Cuban sister church. The U.S. Treasury allows such cultural visits with the appropriate certifications.
My favorite trip was when our host pastor arranged for me to address a gathering at a civic event. I was introduced by a government functionary as the lead pastor of Baptists from America. I informed the crowd that that was quite a promotion. I was broadly welcomed, nonetheless.
The cigars are, indeed, good. The music, amazing. And the hospitality of every church I visited as beautiful as anything I’ve experienced in my globe-hopping life.
Faithful Cuban women, living in small homes with immaculate dirt floors, brought plates of fruit picked in their back yards and way-too-generous heaps of their own allocation of rice.
It appears that the Cuban government’s crackdown on the political protests has been harsh and has included the jailing of religious leaders who were speaking up for more freedom.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCRIF) has released a statement that the “Cuban authorities are detaining religious leaders merely for peacefully protesting and calling for greater respect for human rights.”
The USCRIF statement says, “Principal among human rights concerns in Cuba are the ongoing and systematic violations of religious freedom, which include the persistent intimidation and harassment of religious leaders.”
One of the myths we Americans love to tell ourselves is that everyone wants to live here.
In fact, some do. But in Cuba, as pretty much everywhere, while some would love to emigrate, there are many who are happy to live in their native land. They would just love to do so with greater freedom and without the ongoing acrimony with the United States.
This week, I heard from one dear pastor friend in Cuba. I’ll not mention his name (anonymity is important given the situation on the ground). He is among those who believe, “A lot of people blame the government but there is not much they can do. The embargo keeps them with hands tied.”
Another pastor is a bit more pointed, criticizing the Cuban government for spending too much of its own money on the fool’s errand of developing its own COVID-19 vaccine instead of ensuring it could import a successful one by more healthy international engagement.
Reuters reported this week that the Biden administration will soon release new policies toward Cuba. The current protests have, fortunately, moved up the timeline for such changes, but, unfortunately, narrowed the scope of what can likely be done.
One of the best ideas is finding ways that can get funds in the hands of the people, circumventing any chance the government could get its hands on such aid.
Anyone who claims to have easy answers to a complex crisis like the current one in Cuba is either delusional or lying. But given what we do know, let’s pray that the combination of getting aid to the people and employing targeted government sanctions, as the Biden administration announced on July 22, might bring about long-term change.
Our sisters and brothers on this beautiful island, just 90 miles from the Florida Keys, deserve nothing less.
For three decades, Stearman has served as a pastor in the Christian (Baptist) tradition. His experience includes congregations in Athens, Greece and Paris, France. Most recently, he has been a pastor in New York City where he represents the Baptist global body at the United Nations (supported by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist World Alliance). He is active in helping to lead NGO committees related to human rights and the freedom of religion and belief, has been active in civil societies advocacy at the High Level Political Forum around the UN’s Agenda 2030 (SDGs), and is a trustee on the board of the Parliament of World Religions.