Dr. Robert Buckley, a member of the Committee for the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters, and I were able to travel to Cuba on the license given by the United States Treasury Department to the United States Bishops’ Conference. We bought visas to enter Cuba in Cancun, Mexico.
The first morning in Havana, Sister Cristina Colas, Chairperson of the national sisters’ organization, CONCUR, showed us many parts of the city, old and new. Areas of old Havana are being refurbished for the sake of tourism and are beautiful. The marinas were lined with beautiful hotels and yachts and we were impressed by the cleanliness of the city streets. However, we also saw many areas that were very poor and not maintained.
Sister Cristina told us that the history of Cuba taught to the students today begins with the revolution of the 1950s. After the revolution Cuba prided itself on providing the people with education and health care. Even though Cuba has been known for its high level medical training, sends medical personnel to many countries and has one of the lowest child mortality rates in the world, the health care situation is deteriorating rapidly. Medicines are scarce and hospitals for the ordinary population are in dire need of repair. Bedding, food and medicines for patients must be brought for the patients by their families.
After the fall of the Soviet Union rationing was required to meet the daily needs of people: food, housing, electricity, water, appliances, vehicles, travel, education and health. The government commodities are distributed to families at specified sites where the ration cards listing the names of the persons living at a certain address must be presented to receive whatever is available. The card is used to receive the one allotted bun per person per day.
Very little can be purchased with the Cuban peso because the United States dollar is the basis of the economy. Dollars come into the country through tourism, the major industry of Cuba and through families living outside, primarily in Miami. There are designated shops where goods can be bought with dollars only.
Housing is crowded as numerous families are assigned to live in dwellings that once housed one family. There is limited access to water and sanitation. The Spanish and European architecture of many of these dwellings is magnificent. However, the government has put little money into maintenance of buildings and families have no income to maintain their homes.
Unemployment is increasing and persons with advanced degrees are unlikely to find work that makes use of their skills. There is no allowance for earning income by selling homemade products on the streets as is found in other developing countries. Those who go into private business as hair-dressers, taxi drivers or sellers of produce can do so only with permission from the government and must pay high taxes to retain the privilege.
We saw hundreds of vehicles from the late 1950s, 60s and 70s. The car we traveled in was gutted of its interior, except for the seats. Gasoline is very expensive and rationed, except for those who can pay for it in dollars at the "dollar" stations. Public transportation, consisting of horse drawn carts, bicycle drawn carts and huge buses called "camels" is also limited and very expensive.
The churches of Cuba are allowed to function within certain boundaries and are accountable to a specific government office. All activities associated with churches must be carried on within the confines of the church building. When Sisters first come to Cuba to work they are usually housed in church sacristies or rectories. Sisters engage in a variety of pastoral works, informal education and social services with persons of many religious persuasions. The majority of Cubans were once Catholic, and although many still profess this as their religion, few practice their faith formally.
We visited two projects of the Passionist Sisters.The first, Viva, is located in one of the poorest sections of Havana where crime and prostitution are most common. The program includes a variety of classes for children and youth: English, art, tutoring and values education. The sisters hope to begin some classes for the mothers of the children to offer them alternatives to their current lives.
At a second project, young unmarried women with children were taught crafts and sewing skills. The sewing classes are primarily to help them learn to make diapers and clothing for their children. In the craft classes the women make and paint plaster statues that can be sold in local churches.The sisters also offer counseling, food and medicines to these young women who have little support.
The sisters also share a project with the Sisters of Saint Teresa, a congregation I met in Nicaragua. This project cares for women living in slums, assisting them with supplementary food, clothing, medicines and counseling. The sisters visit their homes and have found that a number of them have HIV/AIDS.
On Sunday, January 26 we traveled to Catalina, a small town about an hour from Havana, where we visited Sacred Heart Sisters who manage the parish in Catalina and live in the renovated parish house. Next door is a former Catholic school, nationalized by the government and then abandoned. It is now is used as housing for six families. There is one toilet and shower for the complex, and cooking is done over charcoal fires on the veranda.
The sisters accompanied us to visit five families who live in small, crowded hovels with walls falling down and leaking ceilings. Some houses were without either doors or windows. However, wherever we went and no matter how poor the conditions, the houses were kept clean. The houses were property the mothers or grandmothers received after the revolution and became dwellings for extended families, including divorced spouses, because any house left by a family is reassigned to other families. The families live on small salaries averaging $10 per month and pensions of the elders living with them.
Monday, we traveled two hours out of Havana to Limonar, to meet the Daughters of Divine Love from Nigeria, the only African congregation in Cuba. They learned Spanish from a local tutor. Two of them live in the space built to house one priest and the others live in another small town about an hours from Limonar. The sisters manage the parishes without priests and engage in pastoral activities offering catechetics, youth activities, home visiting and care of elders. They provide food, laundry services, clothing and medicine. Home visiting in the town is done on foot. In the outlying villages sisters travel in horse drawn carriages.
Tuesday, we visited the CONCUR offices and the Maria Reina project. Maria Reina is a program of human and religious formation for young religious and lay people. Both CONCUR and Maria Reina are housed in a building that belonged to the Jesuits before the revolution. Now, sections of the building have been returned and are being shared with other Catholic organizations.
In late afternoon we met with about twelve representatives of religious congregations in Cuba and learned of many projects: Viva programs, informal education of youth and adults, women in prostitution and their children, tutoring, day care and self-help projects. The sisters are particularly committed to reaching out to the youth.
On Wednesday we visited another project of the Sacred Heart Sisters who live in a school that was nationalized at the time of the revolution and later returned to the church. Their major project, besides catechetical and computer classes, is a program for elders. The elderly receive a small pension and have access to the usual commodities, but at times cannot collect them because they have no means of transportation. Elder housing, usually apartments assigned to them, is often unsuitable to their needs: no laundry facilities, no functioning sanitation, many flights of steep stairs, and no support services Thus, the sisters provide laundry services, a shower for bathing, food, doctor consultation, medicines and recreation opportunities. They have one industrial washing machine.
Later that evening we visited a parish and saw numerous large apartment buildings built by the Russians in the 1970s. Built to accommodate about 30,000 people each, they now house about 120,000. These buildings are badly in need of repair and have limited access to water and electricity because of rationing. Sanitation is often a problem.
The priests and sisters who work here procured a small house with three rooms to use as a parish center. At the back of the house they built an open-air structure to hold services. The parish staff also forms youth and adult groups and provides food and medicines for the poorest of the parishioners, even though a majority is not Catholic.
The following day we visited a day care center in the upstairs of a church operated by The Sisters of the Love of God and the Sister Servants of St. Joseph, a Spanish congregation founded for women’s development. At the time of the revolution, when most women religious escaped from Cuba, three Spanish sisters of this order stayed and worked in a home for elderly people. When other sisters returned in recent years, they initiated women’s development workshops. The sisters lived upstairs in the local church and carried out their workshops in the body of the church. They teach sewing, crocheting embroidery, typing, textile painting and guitar. As more women and youth enrolled, the sisters moved to another house to make more space for their works.
Although the majority of their programs are for young women, some boys and young men also participate in the painting, typing and guitar classes. The sisters’ guitar group is very accomplished. Two times a year goods produced in the workshops are sold at a fair held on church premises.
It was a privilege to visit Cuba and see first hand the many works sisters are doing with women, youth and elders. A majority of the sisters are Cuban and, along with their educational and healing skills, their presence is a sign of hope to many.