April 11, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 15

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    Lessons from a foreign land

    When the Rev. Alison Boden came to the University nine months ago as Dean of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, she brought with her a personal mandate to open the minds and hearts of students to ways of life different from their own. As part of this agenda, she took seven University graduate students to Cuba during this year's spring break.

    "My objective in going to Cuba -- and I did it once before, with Bucknell University students -- was to take students to a developing country and show them a very different way of living, to open their eyes so they can see how two-thirds of the world lives," Boden said. Boden said that travel to Cuba further provided a glimpse into people's lives in a culture largely unknown to Americans, since Americans are only allowed to travel to Cuba for educational, research or journalistic purposes.

    The Divinity School and Political Science students stayed for a week in Havana at their host institution, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, which is affiliated with the Ebenezer Baptist Church. The students traveled through the countryside; toured museums, schools and day-care centers; and met with economists, politicians, religious leaders and people on the street to get a picture of the "real" Cuba -- a Cuba not filtered through the lens of the American media, Boden said.

    "I spent six years in the Marine Corps," said Steve Lord, a second-year student in the Divinity School who is studying for the ministry, "and I went to Cuba expecting certain things -- soldiers in the streets, people toeing the party line. I was surprised by the openness I found instead. People were critical of their government in many different ways."

    Lord said this openness lessened the feeling of hostility he once had for Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. "I got the sense that the Cuban people really owned their revolution. They don't have free elections, but then again, they have a different conception of what government means. They take responsibility for Cuba. They say it is their responsibility to change Cuba if they want it changed -- not ours."

    Boden agrees. "Cubans have had their revolution," she said. "The U.S.-sponsored embargo is not going to spark another one. Before Castro, people would disappear -- dead bodies would turn up in the streets. That doesn't happen anymore. They have health care, free education, food, shelter. The government is paternalistic, yes, the government says, 'Papa State will take care of you.' But at least they get taken care of.

    "People are not destitute in Cuba," Boden added. "The Cuban standard of living is higher than that of other countries in the developing world. I mean, there are rich people in the developing world, and Cubans aren't rich -- they're all lower middle class. But they're all lower middle class, not poor."

    She gave an example. "When we drove out into the country, the houses didn't look great at all -- they were little boxes with palm-thatched roofs. Then we noticed the TV antennas. Everybody has potable water, everybody has electricity. Cubans may not have the standard of living that we would like for ourselves, but when Cuba evaluates its economic situation it looks to its neighbors -- Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala. When it compares itself that way, Cuba's doing really well."

    As a minister, Boden is especially interested in the role of religion in Cuba. Until recently, Cuba, as a communist country, did not allow the practice of religion. But in the mid-1980s, "The Rev. Jesse Jackson made a speech in Cuba at the Episcopal Cathedral, and Cubans watching television saw Fidel Castro sitting in this church, listening," Boden said. "So from then on, there was the attitude, 'If Fidel can go to church, then so can I.' " The Cuban Communist Party was officially opened to "religious believers" in 1991.

    "Between 8 percent and 9 percent of Cubans now go to church, and that's a great leap upward," Boden said. "Eighty-five percent of Cubans say they are religious believers of some kind. Only 15 percent are 'scientific atheists,' which was the encouraged way to be until 1991."

    The majority of Cubans are Catholic. Boden noted, however, that the political stance of Catholicism in Cuba is the reverse of what is often found in the rest of Latin America.

    "The Cuban Catholic church remains very strongly conservative -- it is not supportive of the revolution at all," she said. "Across South and Central America, the Catholic church is more likely to be liberation-minded and the Protestant churches are more conservative, but it is the reverse in Cuba. Catholic churches are on the right, Protestant churches on the left.

    "There are plenty of conservative Protestant churches, but the progressive work that is being done is done by Protestant churches. There are even clergy -- I know of two individuals -- who are elected members of the National Parliament, and they are both Protestant."

    But Cuban religion is more than just Catholic or Protestant, Boden said. Most Cubans also practice some form of Afro-Cuban religion. "There's a lot of blending of religions," Boden said. "In the corner of many homes in Cuba there is a statue of St. Barbara, a Catholic saint who was also venerated as the deity Chengo by African slaves. Both religious figures carry a sword, which is how they came to be associated. Afro-Cubans preserved their own religions by transferring their deities to the figures of Catholic saints."

    Brittany Barber, a first-year Divinity School student studying ministry, was among the students who went to Cuba. She, too, has a special interest in religion there. "I think there is a real spiritual longing in Cuba. With the embargo, Cubans are going through a very hard time, so they need something to speak to them -- and that something is religion."

    She added that she was struck by Cubans' particular perspective in their use of the Bible. "Most of Latin America is oriented around liberation theology. Many people in those countries turn to Exodus, because they are fighting their way out of a 'slave state' -- that is, they are enslaved by economic oppression. But that's not what Cubans do. They read Genesis, the book of creativity. They don't see themselves as slaves."

    The whole experience, Barber said, caused her to re-evaluate what she thought she knew. "It made me wonder -- which one of these two countries is really living in a state of liberation? We in the United States are supposed to be free, but we don't all have health care, we don't all have shelter. Cubans don't have free elections, they don't have freedom of the press -- but they all feel like they are equal, they feel taken care of. Which of us, then, is living on free soil?"

    It is this kind of education -- a re-evaluation of one's ideals through firsthand experience -- that Boden believes in. "We learn so much, we learn more clearly and immediately when we explore another culture. One of our students, for example, is studying education in Cuba, and he was able to sit down and talk with teachers and students at the University of Havana. Nothing beats that one-on-one contact."

    Boden added, "The world knows and respects the University of Chicago -- that was evident from our time in Cuba. The more we can leave our campus and experience that world, the better our work will be, and the better equipped will be our graduates."

    -- Jennifer Vanasco