Havana, Cuba. Via Paxabay

For The First Time in Cuba

Characterizing the current Cuban life are the struggles, the history, and yet a certainty that still lies within the chaos of it all.
Horacio Morel

Matanzas, Cuba, Friday, May 16, 2014. If the life and destiny of men and women are played out in time and space, then there must be dates and places that also acquire transcendental value. We are here because we accepted a simple invitation: “Come along with me to Cuba.” Thirty years in the movement and the intuition of being in front of an historic fact give us the certainty of our answer to this question. However, it is the ever urgent and daily need to see Christ in all things that brings my wife Claudia and me here, in response to the invitation of Julián de la Morena, the responsible for CL in Latin America.

These are the first Fraternity Exercises to be held on the Caribbean island of Cuba, governed by Castro-ism since the revolution of 1959. It is a laboratory of communist collectivism and the cradle and source of inspiration for hundreds of revolutionary movements throughout the world.

Life in Cuba is not easy. There is a shortage of everything. What little there is, is expensive and beyond the economic possibilities of most families, especially those families who try to earn a living with honest work. Jobs do not pay well; a professional earns no more than 30 dollars a month. Since the so-called “special period,” (a period when Comecon aid to Cuba was ended as a consequence of the Soviet empire’s fall) there are frequent, long periods when basic necessities are scarce. Carlos tells us, for example, that in the 90’s he was reduced to washing himself with only water, as there was no soap to be found.

The state continues to control everything. Private enterprise is only the prerogative of large groups in the tourism sector and of some small, autonomous commercial activities. The latter are bound by precarious legal constraints, since the government can revoke permits and close businesses. It has already happened.

THE MONOLOGUE OF THE REGIME. Most people do not have access to the internet because connections are costly and slow, and most international websites are blocked. There is a very strong political will that works to isolate the population in an age in which living on an island would constitute neither a geographical nor a cultural obstacle. Reality contradicts the “Long live Fidel!” proclaimed on the murals in the Plaza de la Revolución beneath the image of Camilo Cienfuegos. Cuban society, like so many others, is exhausted. It lacks true common ideals and no longer believes its revolutionary slogans and the “monologue” of the regime. Approaching the city of Matanzas (100 km from the capital, with a population of a little more than 150,000) one catches a glimpse of the port, with its low buildings typical of small, internal cities, and an enormous bay that was the theater for a bloody battle between the Spanish and the local population (hence the city’s name; Matanzas which means “killings”). St. Peter’s Church on one side and the recently restored Cathedral of St. Charles Borromeo on the other stand out from the other various buildings for their beauty and majesty.

Half way up the bay near the bridge over one of the three rivers that cut through this city, referred to as the “Athens of Cuba” for its cultural richness, a building draws our attention. It appears to be a Catholic school unlike any seen in Havana or in other parts of Cuba: a church, a cloister, a well-tended garden and a statue of the Sacred Heart dominate the space beyond the wall and gate all the way to the sea. This is the parish of La Milagrosa, the place that will host us for the Fraternity Exercises this weekend.

The city and bay of Matanzas, Cuba. Photo by Jerome Ryan via Wikimedia Commons

"There is a strong political will that works to isolate the population. Society lacks true ideals."

We make room in our memory for new faces and new names; little by little we exchange our first greetings. The residents of Matanzas go to and from, attentive to each detail, welcoming those who arrive from Havana and from the more distant Guantánamo and us, who have arrived from Argentina with Patrizia. The Exercises open with the invocation of the Holy Spirit and after the songs Julián delivers the introduction. In the next few days, he will follow the same course as Fr. Carrón, while the more than 20 people who listen attentively fix their gaze upon him, carefully following the expression of his eyes, the passion with which he searches for the precise word that expresses with clarity the concept that he wants to communicate. His eyes make me understand that his dominant thought is not “how many they are” but “who they are.” From the back row, Carras takes notes (at the beginning, he advised us all to do the same). He notes that it is as if it were the first time, as if he had not been in the Movement for almost 40 years, as if he had not spent his whole life helping this story grow, visiting communities all around the world. In the evening, he would witness once again, as he usually does, that life, faith, and friendship should be celebrated. For this reason, he remembered to bring cheese, Serrano ham, and wine for the feast.

A DELAY AT WORK. The moment of the Assembly arrives, with witnesses and questions. Alejandro tells of his faith journey, begun when he met a Catholic family that impressed him and caused him to discover a new way of living, different from his atheist formation, and then later, of the encounter with Conrado, who spoke to him of Fr. Giussani and CL. “The gaze of Christ comes to us through real people,” says Alejandro, underpinning the value of an apparently insignificant daily circumstance. It was a delay at work, “that [he] would have wanted to avoid,”–that forced him to stay a while longer and to listen to the dialogue between the bishop and Conrado, which led to his interest in the Movement.

Alejandro recounts the agitation and stress before Carras’ and Julián’s arrival and of the concerns about the preparations. “Afterward, it was the easiest thing in the world: an embrace. It is very simple, it is about obeying the ‘eyes from heaven’ that are watching me. It is the simplicity of the Christian embrace.”

Conrado asks his first question: “How can I transmit to my university students the gaze of Christ that I have encountered?” Carras answers, “the most difficult thing is to have a gaze full of love for the destiny of the other; we cannot have any expectation in their regard, only gratitude.” He tells of when he and Fr Giussani met with his Spanish anarchist friends. They did not give up proclaiming Christ and his Church facing the human problem, despite knowing that by doing so it could mean finding themselves alone. “It is something that frees us from the results and from useless worries,” he explains.

Orlenis, Nora, Yudailer, and Deyanira recount their stories and experiences. Some have been very difficult, as Alejandro will recount in his witness later that evening. Many have in common the atheist education they received under communism confronted with the profound needs of their hearts that emerge in the pressing circumstances of life that ideology cannot answer. Power, with its arrogance, can declare that God does not exist, but it cannot tear from us the question of the meaning of life, the profound desire for happiness, love, beauty and freedom.

“We continue along that we may not lose this gaze of the Mystery full of love for us.”

TRADEMARK. “I was looking for a certainty,” says Alejandro, “especially in front of my adverse circumstances. When I met Fr. Giussani, I understood that faith is reasonable because it responds to the fundamental needs of the heart. I was surprised, not only by the experience of a reasonable faith, but also by the freedom and gladness that I am living, that are the fruit of faith.” In his synthesis, Julián decisively affirms that “we have not been together to put a little gasoline in the car to tide us over until the presence of Christ happens to us again: The Church is reborn when one feels looked upon by the Mystery in love with man. We continue along that we may not lose this gaze of the Mystery full of love for us.” The retreat ends, but all of us are sure that it is truly a beginning, a point of departure. Jordania, a survivor of the small community from the Movement that once existed in Havana, tells us so. A few days later, Manuel, a man with a long experience in Cuban social pastoral work, writes to tell me that after the Exercises he began to attend the School of Community in Matanzas and to read Fr. Giussani with passion.

The embrace that welcomed us now sends us off. It is the trademark of a friendship such as ours, one that we would have missed if we had refused this invitation. Alejandro is right: to obey is so simple.