From Our Man in Havana:
As America’s Berlin Wall comes down, we need more than symbolism
By the REV. CANON ALBERT OGLE
The Rev. Joel Ortega Dopico left our meeting on Friday from his office where he is the President of the 50-member Cuban Council of Churches to have an urgent meeting with the Cuban government in preparation for yesterday’s historic re-opening of the Cuban embassy in Washington.
Two hours later he reported he had been invited as one of 30 representatives of the Cuban people to attend the flag-raising ceremony and needed to go home to tell his family and to pack. The flag that had been lowered over a century ago had been liberated from the state museum and would be taken back to the place of the initial wounding.
I wrote a thesis several years ago entitled “Returning to Places of Wounded Memory –the Role of World Heritage in Reconciliation.” Rev. Dopico was moved to tears when he told me the story that the same U.S. Marine who lowered the American flag in Havana would be returning here to run it up the flagpole in the empty American embassy that overlooks the 95 miles of deep azure ocean that separates our two warring governments. The symbolism is perfect and poignant.
The beginning of reconciliation demands Americans return to the places where we experienced the most vulnerability. The potential hope these symbols bring to individuals, such as our celebrity-in-waiting retired Marine Officer and Rev. Dopico, is priceless. Words cannot express what this reconnecting means to the few standing around the mast and the millions who will share in the transformation.
These events are occurring in the wake of Cuba’s July 3 vote at the U.N. Human Rights Council in favor of the so-called Protection of the Family resolution [which passed over the objection of the United States and many other countries after its backers refused to accept any language acknowledging the wide variety of human families, leaving it open to misuse by opponents of non-traditional families]. The resolution underscores the importance the American relationship with Cuba.
Although homosexuality is not criminalized here, there is growing concern over the close relationship between Mariela Castro, director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, and the Cuban administration, led by her father, Cuban president Raúl Castro.
There is also concern about how well she actually represents the interests of the LGBT community here. [“Cuban police prevent activist from attending Pride march,” Washington Blade]
As renewed connections between the USA and Cuban faith communities deepen, meaning more travel and funding for projects, the influence of homophobic American organizations may shift the conversation towards a more conservative so-called “pro-family” agenda. As Cuba opens up to the USA and international community, how might their recent role at the HRC play out? There are 6 million Baptists here and 6 million Roman Catholics.
During my current visit, I met with two American delegations who had planned their visits without knowing they would occur at a time when history and justice rhyme.
The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C., sang this past week for thousands of Cubans who clapped and gave them standing ovations. Their final concert at the Che Guevara Auditorium filled the air with songs of hope and love, struggle and a commitment to end injustice and even bullying in schools. They sang about speaking your mind as a form of coming out. This is still a frightening call for most Cubans, LGBT and straight. Their ten-day tour was transformative to all of the chorus members, spouses and friends who came here, Chase Maggiano (chorus president) told me as we said goodbye from the Quinto Avenita Hotel, where the rainbow flag remains flying outside the hotel.
They had an opportunity to sing for a several local social services organizations and promised to come back to Cuba with all 300 members soon! As they processed their emotionally charged visit here, some hoped to attend the Cuban flag-raising ceremony on Monday in solidarity with Dopico’s delegation.
“There is so much to process,” said Chase. The Chorus intends to follow up with some initial fundraising as a result of a concert at Trinity Cathedral in Miami for some Cuban AIDS-related work. Chase’s brother, Grey, is a fellow Episcopal priest at the cathedral and clearly the symbolic gestures of song and flags are beginning to grow roots and deepen. Grey hopes to come here in the fall with a group from Miami.
On Friday evening, the 27th caravan of “Pastors for Peace” arrived. Those visits were first started by the late Rev. Lucius Walker of the New York-based Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO). This year’s caravan was led by Lucius’s daughter, Gail. She spoke passionately at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana before a packed congregation about the need to end the blockade now. Pastors for Peace has provided bus-loads of lay and clergy supporters and containers of humanitarian aid between the peoples of Canada, USA, Mexico, Haiti, and other nations.
The movement stresses the reality that the people of North America and Cuba have been in relationship for the past decades because of civil society organizations like Pastors for Peace, long before our governments began talking. Those visits began with the simple courage and tenacity shown by all their previous supporters, known as caravanistas.
The current caravan began in Canada, crossed 42 US states, raising public awareness of the futility and injustice of the US government’s blockade, and finally entered into Mexico before delivering a container load of medical and other supplies at a port bound for Cuba. IFCO has been doing this for several decades and it is inspiring to see others like the Washington, D.C., chorus and others joining their caravan to deepen the connection between the people of the USA and Cuba.
The US and Cuban governments have to respond and work out ways to ensure equal access to banking, internet and business development for Cubans and others who see reconciliation as the beginning of a new day and new opportunities for all to create.
Old Havana is a crumbling gem that proudly stands as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The extremes of wealth and poverty, culture and deprivation co-exist. It is not unusual to be propositioned by attractive women on the streets who want to feed their children or see limbless beggars cradle their pet dogs as Havana simply passes them by.
I spent time with a 45-year-old man who had lost his hand in an accident. He shared how good it was to have great care in hospital for free but afterwards he struggles to take care of his aging mother and wife and son. They are both working, but it simply is not enough.
The poverty in the city is tangible and everywhere you look. It is as if the Cuban people are living in the cemetery of a bygone era, built on the backs of slaves, assembled by imperial greed for gold and silver. Communist ideology has also eroded Havana’s past magnificence. Strategically, this was the center of all that was inhumane, bringing out the worst of us. Every world power had its blood-soaked hands in the till. Museums to Revolutions all over the city attest to the Castro antidote to imperial greed, but the new generation of Cubans simply wants to know they can find meaningful lives, work, live and love freely and connect with the rest of the world where they belong.
The U.S. blockade, like the communist vision of utopia, simply has not worked in a way previous American politicians envisioned. Now it is up to a new generation to return to the place of the wound, raise flags and inspire the hope and courage for a new day.
Governments cannot do the grassroots repairing of relationships that the Chorus or IFCO can do. Similarly, civil society and business cannot do what they are best at doing, if the American and Cuban governments cannot create the climate of engagement and opportunity. We need each other and we cannot leave it to one entity to do it alone.
Symbolism is good, but it is not going to fire the engines we need to jet us into a different stratosphere. This is a long and strategic process of dialogue and mutual self-interest. We can learn much from each other if everyone does their part. It begins today with pieces of fabric and colors we love. They give identity and meaning for the individuals enacting this symbolism on our shared behalf.
It is America’s Berlin Wall finally crashing into the sea that invites all Americans into this scary new territory.
- Cuba, U.S. restore diplomatic ties amid human rights concerns (Washington Blade)
Cuban police prevent activist from attending Pride march (Washington Blade)
LGBT rights factor in normalized relations between U.S., Cuba (Washington Blade)