By ANIS MEMON .
I recently went to Cuba as part of a delegation sponsored by the American organization Witness for Peace whose Cuba project works closely with the Martin Luther King Center in Havana. Neither organization is affiliated with either the US or Cuban governments, but WFP does operate legally in Cuba on a religious license from the US Dept. of Treasury. The group has been in Cuba since 1999 on an annual renewable license which expires at the end of April and which will most likely not be renewed this year. The US has been tightening restrictions on travel to Cuba -- educational licenses have been almost entirely eliminated in the last year -- and the new regulations for religious licenses stipulate that people affiliated with a group must "engage in transactions directly incident to a full-time program of religious activities in Cuba". WFP's origins are vaguely Christian in its commitment to non-violence and solidarity, and it works with both religious and non-religious groups, but its work in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America has no particular religious character. As the name suggests, WFP is less concerned with improving conditions in Cuba -- that is the Center's job -- than with bringing Americans to Cuba to see the conditions there, to learn more about the social, political, economic and cultural realities that Americans have little access to, and to encourage visitors to work for changes in US policy upon their r! eturn.
The MLK Center, which is an important and well-known entity both within Cuba and internationally, was founded by the Reverend Ral Su·rez, pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, out of which the Center developed. The two are located in the predominantly black neighborhood of Marianao, the poorest one in Havana, which once served as the living quarters for manual laborers. The Center is very much a part of local and national life, engaging in religious, educational, local construction and other social projects. It is the result of Su·rez's attempt to reconcile the traditional churches' elitist and spiritually-oriented activity with the Revolution's concrete programs of social and political change. Su·rez has attempted to practice a religion whose concern is not exclusively on the condition of the soul after life, but also on the condition of body and soul here on hear, and to find a place within the Revolution for different methods of spiritual expression -- not limited to Christianity, but encompassing all religions. In recent years, Cuba has changed its Soviet-derived policy of total atheism to one of secularism, leaving room for religious freedom. And this is in part due to Su·rez's political efforts, for he is among many other things a non-Communist member of Parliament who describes himself as an uncomfortable friend of the Revolution.
The WFP trip lasted one week and included meetings with Su·rez, JosÉ Vidal -- a former editor of one of Cuba's three newspapers and currently a professor of communications at the University of Havana -- Ester PÉrez, a prominent intellectual, a group of medical students from the ELAM (Latin American School of Medicine), a visit to an agricultural cooperative, a maternity hospital, an elementary school, the Cuban Foreign Ministry and the US Interests Section (the equivalent of an embassy), as well as various cultural activities. I would like to stress that my comments do not reflect the opinions or positions of either WFP or the Center, nor those of any other member of the group. Moreover, they are, to the best of my ability, not meant to be taken as generalizations! about Cuba or about Cuban-American relations; they are simply observations and concerns stemming from a hectic one-week visit to a country that Americans are not encouraged to learn about, that indeed we are in many ways prevented from knowing in any meaningful way....