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Spirituality in Cuba: Not What You Think

Pope welcome billboard photo by Jenifer Joy Madden

Spirituality in Cuba today reflects the country’s rich diversity and colonial roots. Despite the communist government’s previous repression of religious expression, Cubans are now “free to practice whatever they want,” according to the Cuban guide of a cultural tour I took of Havana, just a week before the arrival of Roman Catholic Pope Francis.

Spanish settlers brought Catholicism to Cuba in the early 1500s. Within a century, colonial germs and activities had wiped out the native population and most of its cultural practices. By the 1700s, Africans were being brought to the island and enslaved. Their work soon became essential to Cuban commerce.

During that period, Africans were often made to attend Catholic mass. Over the years, as slaves gradually regained their freedom, Catholic practices blended with African religious traditions, including the worship of numerous deities. An example is Ochun—symbol of motherhood and water. Our guide describes the goddess as open-hearted and sensual, adding, “All men are in love with Ochun.”

The melding of Catholic and African beliefs became known as Santería.

In 2010, the Pew Forum estimated that about 60% of Cubans are Christian (“mainly Catholics”), 23% are unaffiliated, and 17% practice “folk religions,” such as Santería. But other estimates, including by the Washington Office on Latin America, indicate that only 1.5% to 5% of Cubans openly practice Catholicism. According to the 2012 Cuban census, 64% of Cuban residents identified as White, 27% as Mulatto, and 9% as Black.   

As of 2015, according to our guide, many Cubans don’t have a religion, per se, but have faith and “do [spiritual] things to help you achieve your goals.”

Since the revolution in 1959, Catholic popes John Paul II, Benedict, and now Francis, have acted as envoys between the U.S. and Cuba. In May, Cuban president Raul Castro met with Francis in Rome to thank him for bettering relations. The current pontiff has so impressed President Castro, he says he may return to the Catholic church, whose Jesuit priests educated him as a boy.

President Castro was in the front row when Pope Francis said mass on the first day of his visit to Cuba. From the altar, the pontiff could gaze over the crowd in Havana’s vast Revolution Square at dramatic monoliths including the towering Jose Marti memorial and the Ministry of the Interior, which bears a huge image of the revolutionary, Che Guevara. Another large building had been draped with a huge image of Jesus Christ.

Jose Marti Memorial

Jose Marti Memorial

Cuban Interior Ministry

Cuban Interior Ministry

Havana Archbishop Jaime Ortega thanked the pontiff during the mass “for having the courage to start a process of reconciliation between Cuba and the U.S.” The one and only time the Pope received applause was when he said, “Please, we do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure on the path to peace and reconciliation.”

From Cuba, Francis flies directly to Washington, D.C., where he’ll meet with the president and address Congress. Other activities on his packed agenda include speaking in New York to the United Nations.

Considering  what could soon be happening to their country, Cubans’ hopes are buoyant. Our guide did not mince words about her compatriots’ view of the Francis visit:

“The Pope is coming to help.”

(post revised Sept. 21, 2015)

Altar being prepared for papal visit

Altar being prepared for papal visit

For more of my newfound secrets of Cuba, sign up here . I also invite you to take a look at The Durable Human  Manifesto: Practical Wisdom for Living and Parenting in the Digital World (now also a 25-minute Audiobook)—inspiration for living more effectively in the complex digital world, which Cubans are soon going to know a lot more about.

Learn more about the author on Google+.

Preconceptions of Cuba

Gifts for Cuba compress photo by Jenifer Joy Madden

A picture forms in my mind, constructed by bits and pieces I’ve read and heard. I’m going to Cuba, a place that’s been shrouded in mystery and intrigue all of my lifetime. I consider this a baseline visit—a chance to see the country just as it begins to thaw from the long freeze out.

Wikipedia paints a picture in contrasts.

The average monthly wage as of July 2013 is 466 Cuban pesos which are worth about US$19.

Every Cuban household has a ration book entitling it to a monthly supply of food and other staples, which are provided at nominal cost.

Yet, there is this:

  • Cuba is ranked very high for human development by the United Nations, and high for health and education.
  • In 2015, it became the first country to eradicate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis, a milestone hailed by the WHO as “one of the greatest public health achievements possible.”

I review my travel packet one more time. Bring toilet paper, toilet seat covers, DEET bug spray. Don’t drink any water except from a sealed bottle. “U.S. cellphones will not have access to service in Cuba due to the embargo.”

An article in The New Yorker describes how Havana is being remade, now that the U.S. and Cuba have started to normalize relations. I want to see the former peanut-oil factory, La Fábrica de Arte Cubano, now a glitzy night spot that “hosts dancers, filmmakers, painters, photographers, and musicians.”

Regular tourism to Cuba is still prohibited to U.S. citizens unless you are traveling under certain “license categories.” My tour is in the “People-to-People” category. In the meticulously researched, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, I read that People-to-People was devised in the Clinton administration to advance “the economic and cultural magnetism of the U.S. and the promise of economic/political benefits which Cuba could gain from more rational behavior.”

The People-to-People program has been on and off over the years. I will be traveling with one of the few recently approved U.S. tour operators.

Tour documents say we will have “a full time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interactions between you and individuals in Cuba.”

We are told to keep a travel journal: “This journal will serve as proof that you have traveled to Cuba for educational purposes and should be kept for a period of five years as proof of the educational nature of your trip.”

At least two local community projects are on the agenda. “These organizations are in need of supplies and are willing to accept any gifts that you may wish to bring to them.” A long suggested list includes syringes, crayons, reading glasses, inhalers, and disposable razors.

I want to talk to the people we meet, but I don’t know the language. A wise Spanish-speaking friend helps me devise a short questionnaire people can answer in writing. She will translate when I get home.

The questions I hope pass muster:

  • How would you describe the culture of Cuba?
  • What aspects of Cuban culture do you and your family value the most?

I want to go back to Cuba in a few years to see what about the culture has been gained—or lost.

What are you curious to know about Cuba?

Spanish questionnaire reverse compress photo by Jenifer Joy Madden

I invite you to read The Durable Human  Manifesto (now also a 25-minute Audiobook). It’s all about the art of living in the digital world, a world largely unknown to most Cubans.

 Sign up here  to see what happens on my trip.  Learn more about me on Google+.

Making Suburbia Durable

Walmart in Tysons, VA by Jenifer Joy Madden

With a little imagination, there’s hope for the burned out strip malls and acres of asphalt formerly known as “suburbia.” They can be turned into active, usable, livable places.

That’s the word from Ellen Dunham-Jones, an award-winning architect, Georgia Tech professor and author of “Retrofitting Suburbia”. I caught up with Ellen at the International Making Cities Livable conference in Portland, Oregon, a town I’ve written fondly about because it helps people to be weird.

According to Ellen, “Underperforming properties present tremendous opportunities.” In some cases, Big Box buildings can be re-purposed. In others, a stream underneath a parking lot could be returned to its former splendor.

Here, she summarizes her TED talk in three minutes: Continue reading

3 Reasons To Use an Alarm Clock Instead of Your Phone

Retro Alarm Clock compress

Lots of us are in the habit of using our phone as an alarm clock. It’s likely we also jump directly down the rabbit hole of reading whatever arrived during the night. By doing that, we can actually prime ourselves to feel rushed for the rest of the day. Switching to a good old-fashioned alarm clock can help to:

Carpe Diem Just like at any other time, when you look at your phone in the morning, you’re flooded with status updates, email, and pleas from destitute princes. Once out of bed, outside forces—whether the kids, the dog, or the boss—begin to determine the course of your day. If you don’t grab your phone right off, you can take a few minutes to think through a plan of action. You can seize the day, rather than letting the day seize you.

Dwell in the Positive As human animals, we are attuned to potential danger. That’s why we worry more about predatory co-workers than about getting sun at lunchtime. But if we dwell on a positive feeling or thought for at least 10 seconds, we can train our brains to have a more upbeat outlook, says Rick Hanson, PhD, author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence. That’s why it pays to spend a little time basking in that cozy, warm wake-up feeling before you do anything else.

Love the One You’re With For couples, one of the biggest beefs is that mates Continue reading

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