The Coming Combustion: Faith and Fear on the Streets of Cuba

Cubans are ready for change—even if it comes by way of violence.

The middle-aged man lowered his voice and leaned in toward us. We were at a paladar, a family-run backyard restaurant in a large Cuban city on a warm evening this winter. Beefy security agents at the next table had turned several times to stare at us.

“I have been traveling all over Cuba in the last few years to get supplies for the tool shop which I run. And no matter where I go, everyone is talking about ‘control.’

“They are sick of the totalitarianism of this government. Yes, there is free education and free health care. But engineers cannot feed their children without the black market, and hospitals are dirty and lack needed medicines.

“Just a few years ago, no one would dare utter this kind of criticism. But now I hear it everywhere.”

He told us he hears this even from members of the government. They sell him supplies they steal from their government jobs in order to get luxuries such as toilet paper.

I asked him what he sees on the horizon.

“Let me give you a metaphor. The people and the government are moving from opposite directions, and one is like oil and the other like fire. Soon they will collide, and there will be—how do you call it?—combustion!”

New Opposition to the Embargo

This was my third trip to Cuba in the last five years. Things have changed, even since my last visit a little more than two years ago. Then, in late 2012, people were divided on the American embargo against Cuba, which since the early 1960s has banned virtually all exports and imports with Cuba except for certain “humanitarian” items. Many wished the embargo would be lifted so that they could get more consumer goods, but others feared such a lifting would reward only the Castros and their henchmen.

But now, everyone I met—even Christians who told stories of cruel persecution by the government in previous decades—said they want the embargo lifted. They said it would rob the regime of excuses. No longer would it be able to blame all of Cuba’s problems on America. And it would flood the streets of Cuba with Americans, who would share their ideas of life and freedom with average Cubans. These two things, I was told, would change Cuba.

I asked my manager friend what shape this “combustion” might take.

“It will come from within the army. There are generals who are waiting for the two funerals [of Fidel and Raul Castro, ages 88 and 82, respectively] which everyone else is waiting for. They know the only hope for this country is to make peace with the Americans, and to open the door for investment. We hear that wealthy Cuban-American businessmen with billions of dollars in Miami are waiting to invest in Cuba.

“But the combustion will be violent. Many in the government and the army are beneficiaries of this system. All are supposed to be equal, but some are more equal than others. They will not surrender the system without a fight.”

This last remark reminded me of what a pastor told me on my last visit—that after the two funerals “there will not be enough telephone poles in all of Cuba to hang all the communists who will be killed” by mobs boiling with resentment and revenge.

The Coming Cambio

Few of my interlocutors in Cuba spoke openly of violence. But everyone—from police officers and Party members to waiters and teachers and pastors—talked about the coming cambio (change). They all know about Obama’s December 17 call for normalization of relations between the two countries, and everyone hopes for a better life.

It couldn’t get much worse. We hear of the poorest countries where people live on $2 a day. But the average salary in Cuba is $20 per month, or 75 cents a day.

The diet for ordinary Cubans is principally rice and beans; meat is a luxury, to be enjoyed on rare occasions. There is no fish for the average Cuban in Havana, despite living on an island surrounded by waters teeming with fish. Fishing requires boats, and the government is loath to allow boats to people who might row them to one of the Florida Keys.

So the prospect of normal relations with America fires Cuban imaginations. A joke going around the island is that Americans are very good at making two things: “Computers . . . and everything else.” Even if a new Cuba is led by another strong man, most expect improvements over the current system.

Julio is a wiry 51-year-old man who makes a meager living by growing vegetables in a tiny plot of land he rents. Looking this way and that, he whispered that there were security agents watching him converse with me on a lane outside my hotel. He confided, “There is no freedom in Cuba. We are not free in what we do or even in what we think.”

Julio told me that he has endured two stints in prison, the first for four years and the second for three years. He was released from the second just four months ago. Both were for speaking against the government. He said that when he denounced the Castros in prison, he was beaten and put in solitary confinement.

“But we hope this too will change.”

Few Changes on the Street or for Churches

In the meantime, however, there are few if any changes on the street. Police and security people seem to be everywhere. One morning, I was running down a crowded city street. At a distant corner, a police car could be seen turning onto this street. Immediately, I heard someone loudly blowing a whistle as a warning, and then saw vendors holding trays with guava cheese flan scurrying off the street. They cannot afford to pay the tax on this Cuban delicacy and would be thrown in jail if they were caught.

The government continues to harass churches. When a Protestant denomination planned a Christmas conference for its pastors and spouses at a mountain resort, local Party officials announced at the last minute that the resort could not be used. Church leaders had to reschedule the conference at an inner-city church where there were not enough accommodations for all who wanted to come.

Why the last-minute change? The government wanted to punish the church leaders for refusing to endorse recent government directives from their pulpits. Most Baptist and Pentecostal churches, which make up the majority of Cuban Protestant congregations, are resolutely non-political. They do not preach against the government, but neither do they pass along government recommendations to, for example, accept gay marriage. In fact, they preach emphatically that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Catholic churches teach the same. They too reject Party initiatives that conflict with Catholic doctrine. One evangelical pastor told me of his respect for the Catholic Church: “The vast majority of Catholic priests oppose the government. Of course, they have an advantage over us Evangelicals, since they are something of a diplomatic community because the Vatican is its own state.” He said he heard that it was Pope Francis who recommended to Obama that he bring a thaw to their countries’ relationship.

Most Cubans do not attend church on a regular basis. According to a recent government census, which some pastors consider reliable, 50 percent of Cubans report that they are atheists or agnostics. Forty percent claim to be Catholics, 3 percent say they are Evangelicals, and 7 percent are devoted to spiritist cults such as Santeria or Yoruba, which make offerings to the dead in hope of worldly returns. Many or perhaps even a majority of self-professing atheists or agnostics dabble in spiritism.

Social Disintegration

While Evangelical and some Catholic churches are seeing new growth, Cuban society is disintegrating. Cities are seeing a growth of gangs and chemical addictions. Cuba has the highest rate of divorce in Latin America, and grinding poverty drives thousands of young women into prostitution. A female physician who doubles as a Pentecostal pastor told me that the biggest problem facing Cuba is philosophical—nihilism and relativism, which produce a sense of hopelessness. The result is a birthrate under replacement level. With fewer babies being born, and one of the highest abortion rates in Latin America, Cuba’s population of 11 million is declining.

At the same time that many Cubans are losing hope, others are gaining it through faith. Pastors told me of swelling churches. One church leader said he is still a communist, and has opportunities to speak of Jesus Christ to leaders at the highest levels of government. A university professor of history struck up a conversation with me on the street, only to discover that he and I shared a mutual Christian faith. A young church leader told of sharing his faith with a military officer who left the room while the pastor was saying a closing prayer for him. Later, when the officer’s wife asked him what he thought, he refused to answer her. The next morning, he woke her up to explain: “I did not speak to you because I had been weeping. Please bring that young man back here to pray for me.” When she brought the evangelist back, the officer committed his life to Christ. Shortly after, he suffered a stroke and lay for weeks near death in a hospital. Not one military colleague visited, but a local church cared for him and his family. The officer recovered, resigned his military commission, and took up a new career as a church planter.

Answer to Prayer

A semi-retired pastor of a large church in one of Cuba’s biggest cities told me of a tradition he started many years ago. Every year, he throws a big Christmas party for his colleagues, friends, and neighbors. He invites local Party leaders, and some always come—to report on the church, if nothing else. He serves a lavish meal, and entertains with lively Cuban music. Then, he said, “I take the prerogative to talk to them about whatever is on my heart that year. Since I throw the party,” he laughed, “they know they have a duty to listen to me.”

This past Christmas he told his guests that he believed his long-repeated prayer was beginning to be answered. For decades, he told them, he had been praying for Cuba to reconcile with the United States.

“I have also been making it my prayer for an end to a sense of superiority,” he told me. “And by that I mean our sense that we are superior to you. When your President said that he wants to begin to normalize relations, I was deeply thankful. Not to him but to God. I believe God is at work. Not in any big way yet. Nothing much has changed for us yet. But I am optimistic that good things will come.

“Yet, even if they are not big changes for a while, I will be thankful, for little changes are miracles too. Especially when it comes to this relationship.”

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