Cuba occupies an exotic niche in the minds of many Americans: an island of salsa, cigars, and palm trees—so close, yet effectively forbidden to most due to the U.S. Treasury’s more than 50-year-old trade embargo.
For some, the mention of Cuba evokes images of Havana’s famed Malecón seaside esplanade with 1950s classic cars roaring past. For others, however, the country’s Communist regime still stirs memories of fear associated with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the near threat of nuclear attack.
To learn more about this Caribbean isle, 12 Wheaton students traveled to Cuba with their professors for nine days this spring. They will tell you that the highlight of the trip was not meeting with leading Cuban economists and church leaders, or seeing Ernest Hemingway’s house outside the capital city’s elegant Spanish quarter. Instead, it was visiting a small, impoverished village about 45 minutes outside of Havana that was hardly accustomed to seeing Americans.
This was true for Sara Hogan ’13, a self-described introvert plagued by “debilitating homesickness and anxiety” during her early years at Wheaton. In Cuba, this Spanish and business/ economics double major found herself conga dancing down the aisle of a small Methodist church overflowing with worshipers. Earlier that Sunday, she rode in a horse-drawn cart in order to spend time discussing life and faith with a poor Cuban family.
Sara’s host was Leta, a 40-year-old single mother raising her 5-year-old daughter in a peat hut with a tin roof. Her teenage daughter lives elsewhere because Leta can’t afford to raise two children. “She was teary but smiling the whole time,” says Sara. “She said life was hard, but God provides and is faithful.”
Sara often served as the group’s translator but found herself speechless when asked by Leta to share about her own spiritual life. This loss for words came after observing Leta’s “inexplicable joy,” where Sara expected to find clinical depression due to her host’s material poverty. Purposely outside her comfort zone on the trip, Sara says she repeatedly felt God’s love, care, and power through spiritual family. And this was a perfect example of why Wheaton emphasizes global and experiential learning.
“The great lessons often come in unexpected ways,” says political science professor Dr. Mark Amstutz, who co-led the trip. “You will get one or two experiences that entirely illuminate. But if you’re not properly prepared, you’ll miss it.”
Dr. Amstutz had taken Wheaton students to Cuba twice before (in 2002 and 2004) but had to halt the trips due to U.S. policy changes that reversed two years ago. Having taught international affairs ever since the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Dr. Amstutz had long been curious about Cuba. “Cuba is like another world,” he says. “It really is a quasi-totalitarian society, but they camouflage the power of the state very well.”
The United States broke off diplomatic relations in response to Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, which established single-party government control of the economy and life in a bid to bring equality to Cuba’s people after the reign of dictator Fulgencio Batista. But today the U.S. is Cuba’s second-largest source of food imports, and Cuban-Americans send more than $1 billion in remittances back to family and friends on the island.
Today Cuba is changing—albeit slowly—as the leadership transition from an ailing Fidel to his younger brother Raúl has been accompanied by the gradual expansion of private property rights such as car ownership and the ability to buy and sell homes, as well as to farm and sell produce in local markets.
But the biggest transition—one frequently noted by journalists and other visitors today—is a new found freedom to dissent, sparked largely by Cuba’s economic decline once the Soviet Union—long Cuba’s supporter—fell apart in the 1990s.
“I was surprised at the level of candor,” says Dr. Amstutz of this year’s trip compared to his previous two trips. “Before, the people who spoke to us had to be very careful with their words. Cubans feel freer today than in times past.”
Students went to Cuba with a range of views on socialism versus capitalism and spent time talking with Cubans about what their lives are like living under a Communist government.
The government provides free education (including college) and basic healthcare, so Cubans enjoy a 90 percent literacy rate and an education that is “possibly more rigorous than one might find in many American public schools,” says Anne Justine Houser ’15, a Spanish and international relations double major. The government also provides food rations and housing.
The housing is sometimes sub-par, however, and rations are not sufficient to feed a family. The government also controls wages, so most jobs that Americans would consider prestigious earn only USD $20-$40 per month. Meanwhile, tourists are required to use a special inflated currency (CUCs) that is 25 times the value of a Cuban peso. This means that Cubans who work in the tourist industry as taxi drivers can make more than doctors.
“I realized Cuba has a unique identity, and not simply plain socialism or capitalism,” says Abby Amstutz ’16, a biblical and theological studies major.
“Students come away with a far more nuanced perspective,” said Dr. Amstutz, who is Abby’s uncle. “Most students return with far more questions about how Cuba is typically described by both sides.”
Autumn 2013 Inside Cuba
The Growing Church
Cuban Christianity shares the charismatic expression of the rest of Latin America. The fastest-growing segment is Pentecostal congregations, led by the Assemblies of God. Even its traditional Protestant churches, such as the Methodists, are marked by passionate preaching, miraculous healings, exuberant worship, and— by and large—the regular manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the gift of tongues.
But the distinctive of Cuban Christianity is “how do you think and act as Christians in a totalitarian environment,” says New Testament professor Dr. Gene Green, who co-led this year’s trip.
The Cuban church lost most of its leadership after Castro’s revolution. Many expatriate leaders left the country or were soon forced out, and many Cuban leaders left as well due to forced labor camps and other forms of persecution.
“You basically had a church that, for Protestants at least, was left in the hands of the laity, and they had to find their way,” says Dr. Green.
For decades, the Communist government, which championed atheism, was hostile toward Christians. “We met with both Protestant and Catholic leaders who had suffered tremendously in the labor camps,” says Dr. Green. “It was a liability to be a Christian for many years, and congregations were quite small.”
But despite restrictions on religious freedom, the Cuban church underwent a revival 20 years ago that is still going strong today. Most churches are overflowing. Christian leaders across denominations will tell you their biggest problem is no longer government restrictions but a shortage of trained pastors to shepherd all the recent converts. “One of the surprises is a church that now is really quite strong,” says Dr. Green.
This was illustrated during the students’ home visits in La Europa. Abby visited the home of Arturo, a single father raising three young children by himself because his wife had left him.
“The revival in Christianity was very apparent,” she says. “He was extremely poor—living in a one-room home with a dirt floor and only a bed and a fridge for furniture—but very on fire for God. He could not stop talking about how God provided everything they needed.”
Overt persecution by the state ended decades ago, but Cuban Christians still experience regular discrimination, including limited access to the media and restrictions on building new churches. The building restrictions have actually furthered the growth of the church, as house churches split and split again once they reach the capacity of their smaller facilities. The limits on media access have prompted churches to focus on personal evangelism.
Students noted that Cuban Christians are quite bold about evangelism and discipleship. “They were very forward about asking new people in the church whether they were ready to accept Christ,” says Anne Justine of the La Europa church.
Abby recalls watching an altar call at the central Methodist church in Havana. “When none of those in the congregation would come forward—not because of apathy but because all were already established in their faith—the pastor went out into the street and brought people in for the congregation to pray over them.”
Social work presents an ongoing challenge for Cuban Christians. “The government says, ‘You save the soul, and we’ll take care of everything else,’” says Dr. Green. “If you believe the gospel comes in word and deed, and the government says you cannot do the deed, then that makes for a difficult time.”
Struck by the needs of the church, Dr. Green says, “They are trying to do a lot with very little. They do need help, but what Cubans want is partnership. They are extremely capable; any type of paternalism doesn’t go down well. Our future with them is one of mutuality.”
Even given the needs, Dr. Green says, “If I were to emphasize anything, it’s the strength of the Cuban church, and their progress from repression to growth and hope.”
Students also observed Cuban culture, coming to understand why the country is often described as a “paradox” or a land “frozen in time.”
“Cuba is a unique blend of Spanish imperialism, American capitalism, and Soviet socialism,” says Abby, recalling the group’s exploration of Old Havana. “The Spanish cathedrals and colorful townhouses, the spare geometric style of the Soviet architecture, and old American cars all coalesce into something beautiful to see. The revolution has repressed the culture, but it hasn’t suppressed it.”
Many visitors to Cuba will note how surprisingly safe it feels compared to other developing nations with similar levels of poverty. Anne Justine credited this to neighborhood watchdogs—citizens recruited by the Committee in Defense of the Revolution (CDR) decades ago to monitor activity and report back to the government.
“Most of us would think negatively about people reporting on our activities, but Cubans had different responses,” she says. “We visited a sculptor in his garage, whose artwork was very political. He liked Cuba and wouldn’t want to move except the economy is so bad. Another man we met was part of the CDR because he said it was better to be part of it than not.”
Another surprise for the students was the welcome they received as Americans—especially after driving past frequent billboards and posters proclaiming slogans such as “The American embargo is the biggest genocide in the history of the world.”
“I was surprised at the disconnect between people and government,” says Matt Vaselkiv ’14, a biblical and theological studies major. “There is so much staunchly anti-American propaganda everywhere, and yet you feel no hatred from the Cuban people.”
“Our governments still stand off from each other,” says Dr. Green. “But when it comes to the people, although I lived for 13 years in Latin America, I’ve never been to a place where I’ve felt so warmly received.”
The time spent in Cuba served as a learning laboratory for how government policies affect both the public and private life of citizens. But more importantly, it offered students examples of inspiring faith.
“If you want to see authentic faith, go to a place with enormous adversity, where people pay with careers or lives when they publicly commit themselves to Christ,” says Dr. Amstutz.
The biggest takeaway for many students was “the depth of joy” of Cuban Christians. “People do not find their joy and satisfaction within material things, but within family and church,” says Dr. Green. “Their joy in Christ is so deep, and they recognize their dependency on Christ in profound ways.”
“I’ll never forget one of the pastors telling us that he felt it was easier to be a Christian in Cuba than in the United States,” says Matt, “because the government oppression breeds faith, while the oppression of abundance we have in the U.S. tricks us into believing we don’t need Christ.”
Matt also says the trip challenged his assumption that his Westernized faith was objective, while the theologies of the Global South were experientially driven.
“I wanted to critique Cuban liberation theologians for the way they have allowed their experience [re-education camps and other forms of repression] to shape their theology, because I foolishly believed I had never done that,” he says.
Sizing up his faith next to a Cuban Christian’s allowed him to see the areas where his own culture had shaped his doctrine.
His conclusion? “We need to live our lives next to Christians from around the world, because this is the only way we will get a more complete picture of who God is.”
Toward this end, Wheaton’s Center for Global and Experiential Learning (GEL) offers several week-long and semester-long programs in a variety of international locations, and for each, the learning begins on campus. Before traveling to Cuba, these Wheaton students spent time studying the differences between politics, life, and faith in a Communist regime versus a liberal democracy.
Dr. Laura Montgomery, dean of global and experiential learning, says, “We aspire for our students, faculty, and staff to function competently as global Christians who have the capacity to live, work, learn, serve, and worship across cultural boundaries in a meaningful, respectful manner in ‘imitation of Christ.’”