She was once the star of Hollywood and Broadway. Cameras rolled and flashbulbs popped as she strutted down the red carpet. Cosmopolitan and Elle vied for interviews. The White House beckoned and Downing Street looked on in envy.
But the years rolled by and starring roles evaporated. Directors no longer offered supporting roles and bit parts were scorned as beneath her once-grand talent. Flowing gowns of yesteryear found their way to thrift shops where teens bought them as retro and pennies of their value were used to buy her life’s necessities. The face once known as the palette for famed makeup artists was now deeply lined and painted with Walmart lipstick and foundation.
I call this woman Cuba. True, my stay was a mere eight days but first impressions are often indications of reality. Old and famous buildings are slowly being renovated but gaping, pane-free windows still line Old Havana. Artists display their colorful wares on the famous Esplanade along with people of all ages advertising their rooms and apartments for rent or sale. At the pier a gleaming cruise ship is docked at the one terminal in “working order” while other terminals lie vacant and deserted. Two old men slowly pull a cart with a barrel of water to an apartment.
Fresh paint covered the walls of our “three star” hotel, bathroom floor tile appeared new, clean towels were formed into animal shapes and laid on our beds each day. But water flowed with hesitation most days with hot water appearing only occasionally. The one standing lamp remained without a bulb during our stay. Electrical sockets hung from the wall. The unexpected hair dryer roared like a Mack truck when turned on and the aroma of burning electric wires cautioned against its use. Advertised internet service–something also not really expected–was “no longer available.”* But the large flat screen television set worked and we could watch newscasts originating in China and documentaries highlighting the Cuban military. Surprisingly, we even saw snatches of what seemed an American movie from the not-so-distance past. One of many anomalies.
The Christians I met were pray-ers of deep faith. The large churches and small chapels are maintained with pride. Pastors tell of their original call and lifelong commitment to minister in their homeland. (Many endured prison for their convictions.) Congregations of all sizes feed the hungry, clothe the poor and minister to the imprisoned. Neighborhood children are noisy, smiling, active in Sunday School where they find love, the story of Jesus and a small sandwich to sustain them for the day.
Cubans sing and dance with vivacity. Children giggle and play in the city square. Teenaged girls coyly glance at the handsomest boy in the room. Boys of all ages dream, eat, sleep and play baseball. But when I asked a knowledgeable friend to describe the dream of most Cuban youth, after extended thought she quietly responded: “To get off the island.”
Government concerned primarily with pride and politics has clothed once magnificent and beautiful Cuba with worn and patched garments. Promises, like makeup, cover society’s crevices. Can people again be free to pursue their dreams within their own borders? Will families regain their reputation for standing together in strength? Will media be free to broadcast all views? Will Christians be allowed to gather in groups large and small? Will a teenager’s dream be fulfilled on the island?
I don’t know the answer to those questions but I vividly recall watching the gigantic stone wall between West and East Germany be pounded into powder. I heard stories of Christians who wept and prayed for hours in churches lit only by candles for totalitarian regimes to fall. I know of others who lost their lives in the fight for freedom. Can it happen again on an island in the Caribbean?
*I was on a humanitarian mission trip to Cuba and so even occasional water was a blessing and clean towels a luxury rarely experienced on similar trips.