No McDonald’s any time soon in Havana

On July 20, Cuba’s flag flew officially in the U.S. for the first time since 1961. Also on that date, the American Embassy opened along Havana’s famous Malecon seaside boulevard with no other nations’ flags blocking the Stars and Stripes, as they had for decades.

For 55 years both nations maintained “interest sections” in their respective capitals under proxy authority of neutral Switzerland. Those offices functioned as embassies and consulates, issuing once-rare visas, but with limited scope for their diplomats.

Chief U.S. diplomat Jeffrey Di Laurentis served three terms in Cuba. As charge’ d’affaires – not quite as lofty as ambassador – he and all staff were not permitted to move throughout the island. They had to request (not always receiving) travel permission. Cuban diplomats in the U.S. laboured under similar conditions.

In those years the U.S. embargo on Cuba combined with mutual distrust and open hostility to freeze most commerce except food exports. Though considered humanitarian aid – largely because inept management kept the splendidly fertile Cuban soil from producing enough for its own people – these exports were not free.

The mutual political stand-off softened after Raul Castro assumed the presidency from brother Fidel in February 2008. Since then, Barack Obama’s administration has dared to disregard pressure from South Florida’s entrenched Cuban-American community to maintain distance between the U.S. and Cuba.

So, what might re-opened embassy relations mean for Cuba and the U.S.?
First of all, no McDonald’s will open soon in Cuba since restored diplomatic relations do not cover commercial affairs. Both U.S. houses of congress must approve renewed business affairs, even though Western European companies with U.S. investments and personnel have worked in Cuba for years, developing tourism and other industries.

Next, the U.S. will – and should – keep protesting surveillance and harassment of Cuban dissidents – though a remarkable amount of protest has been tolerated lately. For its part, Cuba will justly keep complaining in international circles about Guantanamo Bay. Despite intentions, the Obama Administration has not closed the prison, to say nothing of shutting the base and returning it to Cuba.

More poignantly, many people have long been in Cuban jails under what some consider unproven charges of illegal activity – such as fishing for lobster and seafood, which the government has long prohibited for all but tourists.

In another case, a family’s main provider fled to the U.S. Though given asylum, he found no work or legal means to bring his wife there. He returned secretly to Cuba in a boat, hoping to pick up his wife and a friend. After the boat foundered, he made it to Cuba’s shore, but was arrested after two weeks and sentenced on charges of human trafficking – even though he was trying to reunite his family.

Such incidents will not soon disappear from Cuban life. An apparatus of internal espionage has existed since the cruel early days of the revolution. Such a culture has bred distrust among family, friends, neighbours, co-workers and even in some cases fellow church members.

And that is, perhaps, the area where greater, yet modest hope for spiritual and, eventually, political and economic justice can develop for both nations and beyond. In early March, I joined Dan Van Keeken, Chris Toornstra and Ron Prins of Classis Alberta North’s “Cuba Connection Committee” in conversation with Rev. Jose Ortega Dopico.

In his mid-40s, Dopico is President of Cuba’s Council of Churches, also pastoring Varadero’s Presbyterian congregation. He appreciates the basic improvements in Cuban life that 1959’s revolution early-on instituted. Universal health care and education remain strong threads of Cuba’s social fabric that Dopico believes the government will never allow to be dismantled, regardless of change in economic policies. In favour of economic changes for greater justice in employment, salaries and worker independence, Dopico hopes the U.S. can be persuaded to respect Cuba’s social benefits.

Most astonishing, though, Dopico recognizes that the U.S .and Cuba are strong allies of South Korea and North Korea respectively. He envisions the U.S. and Cuba will eventually bring peace to those quarrelling sister nations. Moreover, Dopico – with his many international ecumenical relationships – considers Christian churches and ecumenical organizations in Cuba, the U.S. and South Korea as potential key players in any future peace negotiations. Such prophetic dreams would be of far greater impact on international social justice than Big Macs on the Malecon. Pray for them.

  • Jim is a semi-retired Christian Reformed pastor and missionary who now works for Resonate Global Mission ten hours a week as "Member Care Coordinator," which means "Pastor to Missionaries," because where lots of our missionaries work it's inadvisable to use pastor or missionary publicly. That cool job puts a framework to his week, keeps him in contact with hundreds of even cooler servants of Jesus all over the world, compels him to travel to visit them once in a while, though he connects with them via email and Zoom most of the time. The rest of the time Jim reads books--lots of free ones that he "pays for" with reviews. He was acclaimed President of Christian Courier Board of Directors while on his way to that meeting from a long ophthalmologist appointment. As long as God gives his wife Rose and him health, they ride a tandem bike around Niagara and other places in the bikeable months, paddle canoes and kayaks, visit children and grandchildren in the distant places they live because their parents provided them poor role models for stability of residence.

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