Our group is off today to Plaza de la Revolución to see the memorial and museum honoring José Martí. He was considered by Fidel Castro to be the intellectual author of the revolution, and the story of his 42 brief years of life (mid- to late-1800s) is riveting. First imprisoned by the Spanish in Cuba for revolutionary ideas at age 16, he was deported to Spain after six months. There he earned a university degree, excelling in several fields.
His poetry – along with 89 quotations inscribed throughout the museum walls – is inspiring. The breadth of his accomplishments is breathtaking, and he is remarkable by any measure. Much of his best writing is from years spent in New York. He returned to Cuba to fight against the Spanish and died in a skirmish at age 42. I had no idea that he was the one who penned the words of the song we know as “Guantanamera” (“Yo soy un hombre sincero…”). And I am embarrassed by my ignorance about him beyond his unexpected appearance in pop music more than a half-century after his death.
From the museum, we proceed to the Martin Luther King Center, a remarkable grass-roots ecumenical endeavor related to Progressive Baptists. The presentation by the diminutive Raul Suarez – once referred to by Fidel Castro as pastor of all the Cuban people – leaves many of us moved to tears with admiration and compassion for a remarkable Christian witness. As he concludes his presentation, he confesses that he had been quite tired before joining us and adds that he usually does not meet with visitors at this time of day. But with a vibrant smile he declares that his energy has been restored by our warm reception.
I am incredulous when I later learn that Raul is 87 years old. The humble pastor’s ministry touches the immediate neighborhood, national political debates, and international politics. He is one of the few non-Communist delegates ever to be elected to the Cuban National Assembly.
As we hear firsthand about the effects of U.S. policies as perceived and experienced by the Cuban people, several of us begin to realize the sacred character of the gift we are experiencing – the overwhelming hospitality of a people who might easily dismiss us as stereotypical enemies but choose instead to love and accept us as brothers and sisters in Christ.
We enjoy another lovely lunch followed by a trip to a different ecumenical center, where Caridad Diego, the highest official in charge of religious affairs for the Communist Party in Cuba, shares her perspectives. Later, when we discuss the varying stories we’ve already heard in only two days, Carlos reminds us that we are there precisely to listen carefully to many different viewpoints. It is helpful for us to learn about the complex character of the Cuban government’s relationship with religion and religious organizations, and how, in the past 20 years or so, the government has increasingly partnered with churches for a variety of social projects and has granted them more autonomy.
Supper at the Hotel Nacionál is a special treat, and the live music here – as at most of the restaurants we’ve enjoyed – is fun. But the real treat is the dialogue at the table after dinner.