Cuba mission trip changes opinion of Arundel pastor

Parts of Havana have edge on parts of Baltimore, he finds

June 02, 2000|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

A Glen Burnie pastor has returned from a mission trip to Cuba, wondering whether communism has been as bad for its people as he once believed.

It was a mixed impression that the Rev. James M. Lucas brought home. He said he also met Cubans who were happy for relatives who managed to get away, and people weary of government-orchestrated demonstrations seeking the return of young Elian Gonzalez.

Lucas, associate pastor of Glen Burnie United Methodist Church and graduate student in cultural anthropology, went to Cuba with six other ministers last month to help repair a retirement home.

One hot but forbidden topic that was mentioned during the 10-day visit was Elian. As missionaries, Lucas said, his group from the United Methodist Volunteers in Missions was forbidden to talk politics with the Cuban people.

But after a period of working together on repairs to the NoemiDeulofeuChristian Methodist Home for the Elderly in Havana and nightly visiting other churches for services, some Cuban church members subtly expressed their sentiments.

The United Methodist Church had originally covered the legal fees for Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, in his efforts to have the boy returned to Cuba. But Bishop Ricardo Periera, who heads the Methodist Church of Cuba, did not support that, Lucas said.

"The bishop would go out of the way to point out that he did not ask the church in the U.S. to help Elian and his father," Lucas said. "He wanted to make sure I knew he did not ask for the church in the U.S. to help."

Periera would say no more, but church employees later shared their feelings of relatives' flight from the island, Lucas said. One man told Lucas his wife and daughter had left the country four years ago on a work visa and never returned. The man said he was much happier knowing she is living in Venezuela, Lucas said.

Lucas said another man expressed fatigue with the demonstrations for Elian's return in which throngs of people were onto a studio stage nightly to protest the boy's remaining in the United States.

"One person said, `I'm so glad Janet Reno got Elian because we don't have to show up for the rallies anymore,'" Lucas said. "He said, `I'm tired of having to be told to show up for these rallies.'"

People also complained that their government had spent millions to build the stage with lights and camera equipment, while residents in Havana sometimes can't flush their toilets because of a crumbling sanitation system and lack of water, Lucas said.

But the poverty he expected - the same type of dire conditions he'd seen in other Caribbean countries - did not exist, and that challenged his views about communism, he said.

"There was a certain level of existence Cubans had that wasn't in other Caribbean countries," Lucas said.

"When we drove through the poorest parts of Havana, it was better than certain parts of Baltimore. The child immunization rate is higher, the literacy rate is higher - so it was kind of a hard pill to swallow."

Lucas is taking American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

While much of the anti-American sentiment in the country could be seen as communist propaganda, he found indications those feelings existed before Fidel Castro took over the government.

He mentioned, in particular, a plaque at the rear of a historic hotel in Havana, marking the spot where, according to the inscription, Cuban soldiers fought off a U.S. invasion during the Spanish-American War.

American history books teach that U.S. forces were there to help liberate Cubans from Spanish rule.

The plaque was erected in 1956, before Castro and communism took hold

"If that plaque had been dedicated in 1965, you could blame it on communist rhetoric, but that was in '56, when [Fulgencio] Batista, our puppet, was ruling and when we thought we were liked," Lucas said. "It's clear the United States doesn't understand Cuba."

Lucas is scheduled to speak about his trip at 7:45 a.m. today at the Almost 7:30 Friday Morning Democratic Breakfast at O'Brien's Restaurant on Main Street in Annapolis. The $3.50 breakfast is open to the public.

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