Cuba After Fidel: Business as usual?
EAST WENATCHEE -- It took 100 days to get a "religious" visa and many harrowing moments when the seven members of the Mountain View Church congregation from here thought the whole pilgrimage to visit Cuba was a bust due to communist and American bureaucratic red tape. Somehow they met the right people who said and did the right things and voila! they gained access to one of the last communist countries left on earth.
Fidel Castro had just passed and the world wondered aloud what his younger brother Raul would do with all the rules and regulations that accompany communist societies and how he would respond to a new rapport with America since former President Obama had softened relations just recently despite protests from some Cuban-Americans
Pastor Scott Womack and a half dozen other Mountain View congregants wanted to visit the island nation to help build a small church. They brought tools along and had nothing but good intentions, but still they were followed by plain clothes police of the regime. They were warned that proselytizing was strictly forbidden as well as talking politics.
The group was in fact constantly in touch with the visible arm of the government known as the "Religious Affairs Bureau" and Womack was pretty sure the invisible Cuban authorities were also "in touch," although covertly. "We didn't see soldiers with guns, but we knew we were being watched." Everyone in the country knows there are government agents everywhere keeping an eye on things, according to the preacher who was born and raised in Spokane.
What about language barriers just in case you wanted to go start a business? Womack isn't sure a businessman can just show up and start a new enterprise because the "government is in tight control of the economy." The good news is that the government also forced the tiny group of Christians to hire a tour bus driver and an interpreter. So even if your Spanish knowledge and abilities are "muy poco" (very little) the interpreter and guide should be enough to get you around the town and in and out of any cultural issues or local government questioning. "The Cuban government made us hire the bus driver and the interpreter. I knew the driver from my first trip four years earlier when I was with a different church group from Illinois so that made it easier. His name is Manning and he has a great sense of humor," Womack said. Last names are not necessary or necessarily wanted in print as Cubans are wary people, wary of their own government, its methods and procedures, which makes them wary of each other as well.
They started planning their journey a long time before the death of the iconic dictator. In September 2015 the Pope (Jorge Mario Bergoglio, aka Pope Francis) had visited Cuba so the communist Cuban government was not against all religions all of the time. Karl Marx had written more than 150 years earlier, "religion is the opiate of the masses" in the Communist Manifesto, but how would the modern Cuban administration, hungry for revenue and commercial ties with America, treat this small band of do-gooders from the land of the free?
Most folks know the weather is hot and humid in the Caribbean, but what about the business climate? The adventurous band of mostly East Wenatchee residents were able to find physical labor that they could pay, mostly members of the church they were trying to help, but what they didn't know was the mindset that has permeated the Cuban laborer since the revolution of 1959.
Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, friend of the American Mafia (as in The Godfather) and American businesses as well as other major casinos and other industries fled the island in favor of Castro. Under communism, the incentive to work fled along with Batista as there were no longer financial incentives to motivate workers.
"We saw groups of men in a field being paid to mow the lawn, but they were using long-handled machetes, not lawnmowers," said Womack. "The government figured it was better to keep many men employed rather than use machines to do the work."
The men from Washington soon realized a simple fact about labor and incentives: If a goal is given to the workers they will respond - with fervor.
"I saw this one guy with triceps the size of Pastor Womack's calf," said Shawn Rinker. He was working really hard and it was a real chore keeping up with him. I thought he was a real working machine. Then during a break I saw him talking to his wife and telling her how hard it was and that he was tired and then I realized he was working so hard to show us he was serious about getting the job done. I knew then that he was human."
The Mountain View expedition saw all the men working hard and it was simply because they all had a specific construction goal and that they also wanted to show their guests that Cubans were willing to break their backs to get the job done. They were also incentivized "not to let the Americans outwork them," according to Womack. Normal Cuban workers are not paid any more or any less for meeting work targets or for working faster or slower. "They got paid the same amount regardless," said Womack. The good news is that these men were given a goal and had the incentive to accomplish a mission so in four days they accomplished as much work as they normally would have taken three weeks to do, according to Womack. "There is no cultural incentive to work faster, but these men knew they were working for the good of their 'tabernacle' and so they had a passion." Womack freely admits the Cuban culture might benefit "from a boot in the rear-end."
American companies interested in establishing ties in Cuba had better get their paperwork in order and be prepared to deal with a massive amount of rules and regulations in order to open up shop in the island nation, yet the travelers were able to watch NFL football in English on their hotel television.
There were many ironies evident during the one week trip. The church they were helping to build was one hour east of Havana, but because of a recent hurricane on the eastern end of the island, many needed supplies and construction equipment wasn't available.
"We had to use handmade bricks that weren't uniform," said 35-year-old Tom "Indiana Jones" Owens, a volunteer who is normally a chemist for the Cascade Analytical company in Wenatchee. He tests soil for farmers and orchardists in the agriculture industry so vital to the Wenatchee Valley and beyond. A Cuban driver gave him the nickname because Tom was wearing a hat that reminded the driver of the Indiana Jones character in the Harrison Ford movies. The group joked about the whole thing calling their adventure, "Indiana Jones and the Construction of the Temple."
Asked whether or not he saw any gardens or farms while in Cuba, Owens said, "not really. Nothing on a large scale. I saw some 'victory gardens', but that was about it." He does remember seeing large tracts of sugar cane, but no other crops worth mentioning. Owens had taken some Spanish in high school and was eager to practice the language in a real environment. He said it went well and enough Cubans also spoke English so that there were no real language barriers. As with most foreign travel, learning a little of the host nation's language can open doors and go a long ways towards creating friendships and possibly business deals.
Another reason Owens wanted to visit Cuba was to experience for himself if the so-called "persecuted church" existed and what Christianity was like in a communist country.
"I had never been off the North American mainland continent and wanted to see what Christians did in other countries," Owens said.
"Convertible pesos" are what Cuba uses for foreign exchange. Worthless money on the international markets, but in Cuba an American dollar can get slightly more than one peso. Owens exchanged $60 and received 57 pesos in return. Tourists are expected to barter with the small independent shopkeepers like the ones they found in the village market. Each family was selling an item or two. The corner grocery store had threadbare shelves and mostly cigarettes and beer with some cookies and candy. The Wenatchee men bought candy and even the adult Cubans treated it like it was Christmas, a real special treat. Womack said the government gave each village a set amount of food to be distributed among the residents and no more. Each week the rations could be different. Whatever they got was all they were going to get. It wasn't as if they could go out to the local Safeway or Walmart," he said.
Womack has been to other communist countries before this, having visited China for several weeks when he played college football. Mentioning religion was also taboo in China. He has also been a tourist and missionary in other countries like El Salvador and Swaziland in Africa.
Because of Fidel's recent death the island was official in a nine-day mourning period which made it difficult to get supplies. Many services normally offered were not functioning, observing the grieving period instead. The hurricane didn't help. "We had to mix the concrete by hand," Womack said.
The most common local foods prepared by the people were chicken and pork, rice, beans, plantains and yucca. The weather in December was around 88 degrees and the humidity was around 90 percent. "The flies were epic," Womack said and so at every meal the food was covered until the food was ready to be eaten after all were seated. His church group met up with a retired pastor and his wife from Olympia as well as a retired businessman from Atlanta with construction skills who sold his company and has been following a calling from God to help rebuild churches around the world.
The community of Los Palos as did many other communities in the poverty-stricken nation, had huge potholes that became mud pits after a rainfall. No asphalt or cement roads, at least none visible on the video shown to the congregation. The preacher at the church being aided received about .75 cents each week in donations - on a good Sunday, according to Womack. The average annual income was about $120. The average worker made about $12 a month.
At the end of the trip the men from Mountain View left their tools behind as a donation. they also left all their clothes except for what they wore on their journey home, also as a donation. In turn, the people of Los Palos donated those clothes to the hurricane victims on the other end of the island.
"This trip probably would not have been possible without the generous support of Stan's Merry Mart who donated several hundred dollars worth of tools and gloves and gave us great moral support," said Womack. One last thing to mention about Womack and his crew, religious visas, hurricanes, Castro's death, "We were exactly where we were supposed to be when we were supposed to be there and with exactly the right tools and the right people," Womack told the congregation in a "debriefing" pot luck Sunday service in late December. He said the Lord ensured it happened the way it did, whether the men had planned it that way or not.
In business parlance, sometimes making an effort to break through governmental barriers is worth the effort. Permeating the red tape of communist Cuba wasn't easy for the faithful of Mountain View Church. Getting through any bureaucracy isn't easy, but opportunity in Cuba clearly exists. However no one knows if that window will expand or close tight once the new Trump administration gets going full steam.
In the words of author Robert Brault, "Sometimes in life you have an appointment with destiny, and sometimes you just have to get destiny to squeeze you in."