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Cuba: engagement is the only way forward

 
Entre Amigos-Opinion/Commentary
April 26, 2012

 By Mar Muñoz-Visoso

I was privileged to accompany U.S. bishops and hundreds of pilgrims to Cuba for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the island nation. The memories of the experience are still sinking in. We visited Santiago and Havana.

Santiago’s heat matched the warmth of its people. We also were able to visit the Santuario del Cobre before the statue of Our Lady of Charity, the Patroness of Cuba, was taken to the city for the papal Mass. When we arrived the statue was already out her niche and on a pedestal by the main altar. It felt as if the Mother of all Cubans had come to greet her sons and daughters from abroad. Our group included many Cuban-Americans, some returning to the island for the first time in 50 years! Some were too young when they left to remember anything. Some had made the trip despite opposition from some family members.

Our Lady of Charity, Cachita, on this 400th anniversary of her discovery, had brought together her children at home and in the diaspora, making true the old saying, “La Caridad nos Une” (Charity unites us). She was bridging barriers of hurt and ideology, signaling that reconciliation and healing are possible one heart at a time.

Walking through the narrow streets and wide avenues in Havana, one can still imagine the splendor of the city in its heyday. Yet, looking at the rundown mansions and outright dangerous buildings in extreme state of disrepair, one couldn’t help it but think “what if…” What if collaboration, instead of isolation and confrontation, was possible between the U.S. and Cuba.

On the day of the Mass at Revolution Square, a Mexican priest in our group intoned religious songs in Spanish as he pushed an elderly woman’s wheelchair. We joined him in song as we walked: “Vienen con Alegría” (They Come With Joy), “Si tuvieras fe como un granito de mostaza”, (If You Had Faith Like That of a Mustard Seed). Our singing did not go unnoticed. Some looked at us amused. Others looked at us and then over their shoulder, perhaps awaiting someone to tell us to quiet down. No one told us anything, however, so we pressed on. Some ladies started clapping to the tune.

When we arrived in the capital’s iconic plaza, the group parted ways. Four of us ended up in the middle of Revolution Square. We had participated quietly at the Mass in Santiago two days earlier. By the time we arrived in Havana we had lost the “fear to engage.” Conversations ensued with perfect strangers while we waited for Mass to start.

Baseball and Spanish soccer are icebreakers in any Caribbean nation. Then, we moved on to why people were there. A group of young adults drove six hours from Cienfuegos. They weren’t “creyentes” (believers), they said, but had come out of curiosity and respect. “It’s a historic event. We didn’t want to miss it.” A young man from Havana said he was told to attend if he wanted to get paid for his day’s work. Groups held signs with posters of the pope and La Virgen del Cobre, and the name of their parish or diocese. The Mass started. The beautiful singing of the huge choir mixed traditional Spanish and Latin Hymns with some “habanera” rhythms. Surprisingly, most people around us seemed to know the responses to the liturgy.

After Mass a young local couple also approached us. “What do you think about what the Pope said?” we asked. “Change” was the word that stuck with them. “There needs to be change. The revolution accomplished some good things, but there needs to be more freedom,” the man said. “People like us, we are educated but one can only get so far.” And she added, “There is no guarantee that if I work hard and save a little money, I would be able to visit some of the places I’d like to see.” Ah, the yearning for human freedom! But what was more impressive, however, was realizing that this open conversation would have been unimaginable a couple decades ago.

As we headed to the airport the next day a lively taxi driver asked about my experience in Cuba. To every positive comment I made, about how things seemed well organized, or that we had been treated well, he responded with a proud “muchas gracias.” Clearly, he felt personally responsible. The Cuban government certainly had made sure visitors left with a good impression, though there was no way to mask the effects that poverty, material need, lack of jobs, and lack of certain freedoms had in the population.

I left Cuba exhausted, both by the intense schedule and the heat, but also grateful and hopeful. Grateful for the privilege of being there. Grateful for the hospitality and the opportunity to engage. And hopeful because Cubans, especially younger Cubans, inside and outside of Cuba, seem to see things in a new light and are looking for opportunities to engage. They are the ones to build the bridges of reconciliation.

Both the Cuban and the U.S. bishops have said before that engagement rather than isolation is the only way forward in Cuba. On April 17, Bishop Richard Pates, chairman of U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for an end to the U.S. economic embargo and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba. After what we saw and heard, fellow Catholics in the U.S. might want to stand up and say “Amén.”

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Mar Muñoz-Visoso is executive director of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


 

 



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