September 14, 1999
(Last November the author of this article and several other Mobilians visited Cuba on a trip arranged by the Mobile-Havana Sister City organization. A US government embargo prohibits most travel to and other relations with Cuba by American citizens. This is the ninth episode. The tale will conclude in the next issue. Click here for the previous episode.)
by David Underhill
Our meanders around Havana left me as astonished about the role of religion in an officially atheist communist state as the Rev. Billy Graham had been in the Soviet Union. He went there shortly before its demise to evangelize for the American way of faith and life. Upon return he reported, with some apparent surprise, that religion operated rather freely and openly in the USSR.
This provoked such an uproar that he had to semi-recant his own observations. The bad news that people in Red Russia could--but didn't much care to -- practice any formal religion was an intolerable blasphemy to many believers here.
Despite my conscious resistance to decades of propaganda about state repression of religion in Castro's Cuba, I arrived there half expecting to find a cowering, covert faith, if any at all. But, like Graham, that's not what I saw.
The synagogue some of us visited was operating with no visible hindrance by the government or other authorities. The Catholic Church remains present across Havana, architecturally at least. One afternoon I halted on the sidewalk to gawk at a man trundling an eerie, elaborate shrine down the street on a handcart. "What is it?" I wondered aloud to somebody beside me. "Voodoo," he replied with a smile and a shrug.
And the Baptist church where I found lodgings had an open door that I simply walked through to inquire about a place to stay. After a couple days of getting acquainted with the folks there, I asked the pastor's wife about the prevalent American reports of religious suppression in Cuba. She laughed at that and said, I think, in the exchange of jumbled Spanish and English that ensued:
Look around you. We have regular worship services and many other activities here. People come and go as they wish. The same is true all over Cuba. If Christians want to have a church, they can.
This was illustrated at a nearby Methodist church. It stayed busy and packed. Music and hosannas poured from the building. Above the door in Spanish was the familiar: I am the way, the truth, and the life. You could hardly walk by without being invited inside or getting entangled in a theological discussion that had tumbled down the stairs and into the street.
Sunday morning found us at another church in a small compound called the Dr. Martin Luther King Center for reasons I never discovered. Like the Baptist church, this place also had some link with the American Pastors for Peace group, as displayed in a lively mural assailing the US embargo (el bloque) of Cuba. A window in the wall cleverly served as the windshield of a bus in the painting.
Only a battering ram could have compacted more worshippers into the sanctuary. One of the visitors from Mobile, the Rev. Bill Fountaine, was the preacher--via a translator. The service was a close cousin to any down home Protestant one in Alabama. Some of the hymns were identical--except for the Spanish words.
Perhaps behind the scenes and out in the countryside the government or the communist party work to frustrate and hobble religion. Starting and sustaining a congregation may be arduous. And whether by conviction, stigma, or a couple generations of communist re- education, we didn't see a mass trooping into churches that Sunday as part of people's weekly routine.
But keeping the faith was never supposed to be easy, and the refining fire does have some benefits. At least, religion as currently practiced in Cuba seems free from the moral hazard that has bedeviled especially the Catholic church for centuries across Latin America: being perceived as the concubine of the state.
The state evidently leans much harder on the commercial concubines than it does on any religion. Hookers stalking the tourists were not flamboyant. They would approach casually and never make a plain proposal at first. Their English was smoother than my Spanish. Two even coached me by plucking my bi-lingual pocket dictionary and locating the words I was groping for. Once they'd decided I was not an undercover agent, they would steer our conversation in a franker direction, while keeping an eye out for the cops.
When this sales spiel faltered, some turned blunt:
What is the problem here? Are you ill? Afraid of your wife or girlfriend? Not like me, think I'm ugly. Are you incapacitated? Are you (flutter of a limp wrist)? Are you broke? Do you want to keep me poor by keeping all your dollars?....
No, no, no....
Well then, what exactly is the problem....
Eventually she would give up--and then ask why you wasted this effort which she could have devoted to recruiting business elsewhere. She would persist with this pitch until you yielded a few bucks for her to go away. It was like being billed by a lawyer or cab driver for his time waiting while you decide what you're going to do.
So I'm not shocked at what happens one morning back at the Havana Libre hotel. I'd returned there because it has telephones, a cluster of them in glass booths beside a counter where clerks dial the number and collect the charges when you finish.
I had to call Radio Havana. Before leaving Mobile I'd gotten, through a previous visitor to Cuba, the name of someone who works there. For my trip I took a brief leave from hosting a morning chatter show on WABB-AM, but I resolved to finagle a way to do the program once from Havana. I had no plan for accomplishing that, other than attempting to contact this Radio Havana woman--and winging it.
A phone book listed a baffling array of numbers where she might be. I'd just have to start calling and try to explain myself to whoever answered.
I was sitting in the lobby fabricating my con man's patter in fractured Spanish when a lilting voice says in English, "Pardon, sir. You are not Cuban, yes?"
"Yes, not. How did you guess?" Oh my, what a fetching young thing she was.
"It is necessary. I am making a survey of tourists. May I ask questions, please?"
This was a novel opening line, indeed. What next? A clipboard and a University of Havana ID, that's what. She was legit, quizzing foreigners about tourist services to compile data for improving them.
When my replies had been marked on her checklist, I seized the opportunity to request a favor in return. She listened attentively as I detailed my need to call Radio Havana. "Would you call for me?" I begged, with all the dignity I could muster.
"Yes, of course."
I handed her my note with the name of the person I must find there. Her eyes widened. "I know her! I was intern last year where she works. It is close. I take you to her. Come, please." Fifteen minutes later I meet the name on my note and am entering the innards of Radio Havana's overseas broadcast center.
What are the odds against this occurring in a city of millions? It could make a believer out of an agnostic.
The staff at Radio Havana is intrigued and amused at the idea of piping a talk show from their studios to Alabama and back. A pair of them agree to participate as guests, and I decide to invite Jay Higginbotham from the Mobile contingent. (Earlier I'd suggested this some others too but they declined.) We will broadcast the following day.
Then the radio crew mention that I will have to cover, of course, the cost of the phone connection to Mobile. Plus, they must charge me something for the use of their facilities and personnel. The total will be $172.
It was an offer I couldn't refuse, since I was completely snared already on the notion of doing this program from Havana. Also, their fee was reasonable. These were talented, capable folks struggling with obvious shortages of basic broadcast supplies, and Yankee dollars have great clout in Cuba.
Would a hooker have believed me if I'd declined her company by saying I must conserve my money to rent Radio Havana for a couple hours? Could I have occupied CBS radio's main studio in New York for this price? Could I even have walked in off the street and gotten to it? No.
Besides, by pulling off this unique broadcast feat perhaps I would so please and impress the boss back in Mobile that he would reimburse me. It turned out that would happen on the same day Fidel Castro converts to capitalism.
Still, the next morning was worth all the maneuvering and money. Higginbotham and I did recorded interviews for use later on Radio Havana's shortwave world service. Then, as the moment arrived for the broadcast to Mobile, the phone connection died. There had to be some glitch. This is traditional in the trade.
When that got fixed a fine and informative time was had by all on both ends. Most of the callers from Mobile were friendly to my Cuban guests and genuinely curious about their views. And a few sour ones even seemed to delight in this rare chance to indulge in personal hostility toward actual commies, while grumbling at me for arranging it.
After the broadcast a bonus appeared. Somebody at Radio Havana knew somebody with a car who might be available to whisk me around the countryside. This experience wouldn't be free either, but it might be worth the modest cost. Our bouncy little ship would depart the next day for Key West, if the weather consented, and I had no other prospect for seeing anything outside the city.
(to be concluded next issue)