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Gustavus travelers make it to Cuba in nick of time

The U.S. has now withdrawn permission for educational visits

We had total access to Cuban people in shops and on the street,” says Professor Steven Griffith, one of eighteen staff members from Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, who were on a travel seminar in Cuba during June. “Over and over they told us that they support Fidel Castro. He has given them universal literacy, cradle-to-grave health care and free dental care.
“Cubans told us, ‘We’re trading some freedoms for food, education and health care. For us, it’s worth the trade-off.’ One official said, ‘We’ll never have democracy. We can’t risk a two-party system where policies lurch from direction to direction.’”
Griffith, chair of the Gustavus department of theatre and dance, is a member of Shepherd of the Lake Lutheran Church (ELCA), Prior Lake.
Gustavus participants had the good fortune of narrowly missing a July 1 reinstatement of U. S. travel restrictions to Cuba by the George W. Bush administration. They are spending one year in a multiyear faculty development program called Service Learning for Social Justice, assisted by the Bush Foundation (no relation to the current president) and Lilly Endowment, Inc. Their goal is to gain experience and gather materials that will enrich their students’ understanding of social justice issues.
Departments represented this year include art, biology, English, theatre, history, geography, modern foreign language, education, nursing, religion, classics and communication studies.
“For those of us who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, Cuba has always had a larger-than-life role in U. S. foreign policy,” says Griffith, who was in grade school during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. “This was an opportunity to see one of the last real Communist countries. Havana is only a 45-minute flight from Florida.”
Says Prof. Elizabeth Baer, “Cuba was by far the first-choice destination of this year’s group.” Baer, a member of the Gustavus English department, and holder of the Sponberg Chair in Ethics, organized the trip. The Center for Global Education at Augsburg College, Minneapolis, was in charge of arrangements.
Previous Gustavus travel groups have gone to Northern Ireland and Guatemala. A travel seminar to Africa or East Asia is projected for 2006.
“We choose countries with social justice issues,” Baer says. “We understand ourselves and our own country better by seeing other places. Among the questions we ask are, ‘How does the situation here relate to St. Peter, Minnesota?’ and ‘How can I use this experience to heighten the awareness of my students?’”
The theme of the June visit was “Successes and Challenges of the Cuban Revolution.” Baer illustrates challenges to social justice in Cuba by describing the dual nature of the economy.
“We never changed mo-ney. We used our American dollars, which were wholeheartedly welcomed. Cuban workers bring home the local currency, the peso, on average earning the equivalent of $11 per month. Doctors make the equivalent of $25 per month.”
All Cubans have government-issued ration cards to supplement their income.
“There are two kinds of stores — bodegas, which take pesos, and dollar stores. Only in dollar stores can Cubans buy things like olives, Coca-Cola, hair dryers and toilet paper, for example. How some of these things get around the U.S. trade embargo we weren’t told.”
Baer gives instances of Cubans who find ways to acquire dollars. “If you sell ten bracelets made of coffee beans for two dollars each, you can make $20 a day. That’s a two-month salary for the average Cuban professor.” In another case, a woman employed by the government to protect a vacant building from vandalism had her own scheme on the side.
“She was quietly showing the vintage building to tourists for one dollar each. When she makes enough, she can go to the dollar store and buy what she wants.”
In addition to conversations with Cubans in informal settings, the Gustavus group made scheduled visits to historic sites, a tobacco farm, an urban garden, an ecological complex, a school, the University of Havana, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a museum, art pavilion, a medical center, an AIDS clinic, a maternity home and a doctor’s office.
From Minnesota, they brought with them a variety of items for donation — medicines, medical supplies, crutches, canes, and clothing. After their return, they spent time with members of the Latino community, including Cubans, in the Twin Cities.
Metro Lutheran asked whether there is a church presence in Cuba.
“Religion was downplayed for years, but in the 1990s Castro relaxed the prohibitions,” Griffith says. “There is a growing church movement. We found that African religion is popular and coexists with Roman Catholicism.
“We attended a dance performance where we saw an overlapping of African gods with Catholic saints. We also attended Sunday morning worship at an ecumenical center, with young people running the service together with parents. This time we noticed a Baptist-Pentecostal flavor.”
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost outside economic support and is trying to recapture it through tourism. Castro’s goal is ten million foreign tourists by 2010. “The major sources of tourism now are Europe, South America and Canada,” Griffith says. “Once America’s travel restrictions are lifted, Cuba will be a huge tourist destination for U. S. travelers.”