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Observing Life and Culture in Cuba

Statue of St. Junipero Serra, OFM, in Plaza San Francisco in La Habana (Photo courtesy of Jim)

In February, Jim McIntosh, OFM, spent five days in Cuba, spending time at the new OFM mission there.  It was Jim’s second trip to the country that is only 100 miles from Florida yet one that is different from other countries in Latin America in many ways, according to Jim’s account.

The missions used to be different.

When St. Junípero Serra, OFM, left his home island of Mallorca in 1749, he knew that he would never return. He left his fellow friars – friends and students he had taught in the seminary — and, in fact, left everything that he had known. When faced with telling his parents that he would never see them again, he punted and had a friend tell them after he had already set sail for the Americas.

Junípero was very clear about his mission. He volunteered for the missions so that he could convert the infidels, as he called them, and give them the gift of eternal life. (In fact, most of controversy about Junípero’s relations with the indigenous population stems from his great fear that, having baptized them and given then eternal life, these same people now risked the very real possibility of eternal damnation if they lapsed in their faith.)

Missions today are different. When our missionaries traveled to China, they took a ship across the Pacific Ocean and then another ship up the Yangtze River to our mission. It was a journey of six months or longer. Today, we have jet airplanes that make it possible to get anywhere in the world in a matter of hours.

The missionaries to China had to work out a system of numbering letters sent back and forth to friends and family, because of the months-long delays in receiving mail, as well as the continual risk of letters being lost. Today, we have email and services like WhatsApp that enable near instantaneous communication.

Serra was also clear in his mission: to convert the indigenous people of Mexico and California to the true faith. The missionary goal today can be less focused. We no longer fear that the unbaptized will forsake eternal life. We no longer see the Catholic faith as the only path to salvation.

This was my basic understanding of “mission” in today’s Church. And then, I went to Cuba.

The locations of the 105 friars serving in Cuba in 1956. (Photo courtesy of Jim)

Familiarity Can Be Deceiving
As a young man, I once had the opportunity to take a European business trip. It was my first real voyage outside the U.S. Looking back, I realize that of all the countries that I visited, the country in which I felt most out-of-place was England. In France and Germany, the different language alone was enough to continually remind me that I was a foreigner; in England, I wasn’t reminded by the language and, therefore, I felt less of a need to try to adapt myself to being in a different country.

I felt the same visiting the OFM mission in Cuba earlier this year; there many things that seemed familiar and yet were definitely foreign – and it was difficult to sort out the differences.

The Franciscan presence in Cuba is one of crisis. The friars of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are members of a custody dependent on the Basque province, but that province can no longer support the custody. Of the hundreds of friars that once ministered in Cuba, there are now eight: three in solemn vows, two in simple vows and three novices. Of the three in solemn vows, two are very old and not able to continue ministering and the other one is now in Puerto Rico with health problems.

Consequently, two years ago, the Order put out a call for new missionaries to Cuba. There are now two new missionaries there: a Guatemalan friar and an Irish friar. More are in the process of discerning a missionary vocation to Cuba.

Friars and students living in Cuba during the author’s visit. (Photo courtesy of Jim)

Cuba’s Past
Cuba was a Spanish colony for over 400 years. Its functions in the Spanish empire were to warehouse the gold and silver plundered from Mexico, Bolivia and other colonies until it could be taken to Spain via the Armada, and to grow sugar for European tables. Producing sugar at this time meant working untold numbers of African slaves under a broiling hot Caribbean sun. It was brutal work.

After the Spanish-American War in 1898, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines were ceded to the U.S. Through the same treaty, Spain relinquished all claim of sovereignty over and title to Cuba, it thus became a protectorate of the United States. Cuba gained formal independence on May 20, 1902. Under the new Cuban constitution, however, the U.S. retained the right to intervene in Cuban affairs and to supervise its finances and foreign relations, and Cuba also agreed to lease to the U.S. the naval base at Guantánamo Bay.

The next 55 years were a mix of corrupt regimes, attempts at reforms, invasions by the United States, and military coups. Finally, in 1959, Fidel Castro led a communist revolution, and the island was changed forever.

Any photo set of La Habana would be lacking without a photo of an old car. (Photo courtesy of Jim)

Life in Cuba
I found life in Cuba to be both familiar and exotic. The shortages of food and basic items reminded me of my life in Bolivia, where I lived from 2006 to 2010. As with many places in the developing world, there are times when a country will be flooded with an item, and then in the following weeks that same item cannot be found anywhere. Joining the friars in trying to find and purchase food reminded me of life in Bolivia and in the slums of the pueblos jóvenes where the friars work in Lima, Peru.

At the same time, under this familiar façade, there were significant differences. The country is led by communists, the economy is controlled by the state; there is a general, pervasive and gradual crumbling of infrastructure; and there is a tight control of the people practiced by the authorities. This leaves the people in a state in which they can never really be sure whom they can trust.

Cubans grew up in this culture and so have an innate understanding on how to live under this system. For those of us more used to an open society, adjusting to life under these controls can be difficult.

The deteriorating infrastructure also means that many times a whole family, spanning multiple generations, will share a single apartment. Under these conditions, there is very little space for privacy. Consequently, many people in Cuba have a completely different sense of personal space than we do in the U.S.

The government has put a great emphasis on two things: education and healthcare. This has led to an educated population that is intellectually curious. After 60 years of official atheism as state policy, there has been a gradual loosening of controls on the Catholic Church after visits by the last three popes.

Two pieces of stained glass artwork created by the late Miguel Loredo, OFM, before he joined  Holy Name Province and was still a friar in Cuba. (Photo courtesy of Jim)

Desire for Spirituality
The Cuban people are open and friendly. They are curious. We count George Washington, a general, as our founding father; Cuba considers José Martí, a poet, to be theirs.

Looking at the widespread presence of the only government-approved religious expression – the Santeria mixture of Catholic and African beliefs – one can see that the Cuban people have a hunger for something beyond themselves.

While we, Catholics, have a deep reservoir of spirituality to share, living as missionaries in Cuba recalls the struggles of Junípero Serra. I found Cuba, while superficially similar to other Latin American countries, to actually be a land quite foreign to us.

Building up the OFM presence in Cuba requires finding friars like those of antiquity: friars willing to move to a completely foreign land and work out amongst themselves how to share the faith in that very different society.

— Br. Jim is communications assistant for the HNP Communications Office and webmaster for the US Franciscans.

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