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Team notes changes in Cuba in six years of mission trips

Friday, August 22, 2014

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

Villa Heights Baptist Church has sent a mission team to Cuba off and on for about six years, according to the church’s pastor, the Rev. Keith Spangenberg, who said he has seen some changes there during that time.

Teams went annually from about 2005-07 and 2012-14; the latest trip was July 14-22.

“Changes that we have noticed in last three years, (they are) trying to draw a lot more European tourists in, doing a lot of refurbishing of Havana hotels, restaurants along the beach,” Spangenberg said. “... There also are newer cars. You still see a lot of 1956 and ’57 cars they jerry-rigged to keep going. If you see a newer car likely it’s driven by a government official.”

Janet Copenhaver, who works for the Henry County Schools and went on the trip for a fifth year, agreed: “Most Cubans have a very old car unless you work for the government. Lots of people walk or take public transportation instead of owning cars. Buses are very crowded and people have to get to a bus stop very early to go anywhere. Most of the people indicated that the bus ride to the church we visited was at least an hour coming and going back home.”

According to “The World Factbook” on the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency website, the Cuban government in 2011 held the first Cuban Communist Party Congress in almost 13 years. A plan for wide-ranging economic changes was approved at that session.

“Since then, the Cuban government has slowly and incrementally implemented limited economic reforms, including allowing Cubans to buy electronic appliances and cell phones, stay in hotels and buy and sell used cars,” according to the website. “The Cuban government also opened up some retail services to ‘self-employment.’ ... Recent moves include permitting the private ownership and sale of real estate and new vehicles, allowing private farmers to sell agricultural goods directly to hotels, and expanding categories of self-employment.”

It added that despite these reforms, the average Cuban’s standard of living is worse than before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting downturn of the 1990s.

“Cubans have very little money to spend,” Copenhaver said. “One of the ladies that worked with us as a translator just retired and her retirement check from the government is 20 pesos a month (about $20 U.S. dollars). She also received vouchers of things she could purchase at the store. Of course stores did not have lots of stock on the shelves so she may not be able to purchase things during that month even if she had a voucher.”

“It seems that in some areas, time stood still; when you visit houses, they are very small, with concrete flooring. If houses have a refrigerator, it is the rounded one like the ’50s and ’60s,” she added.

Cuba has one of the world’s least free economies, according to the 2014 Index of Economic Freedom, a joint publication of The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal.

“A one-party Communist state, Cuba depends on external assistance (chiefly oil provided by Venezuela ... and remittances from Cuban émigrés) and a captive labor force to survive. Property rights are severely restricted. Fidel Castro’s 81-year-old younger brother Raul continues to guide both the government and the Cuban Communist Party. Cuba’s socialist command economy is in perennial crisis,” the index states.

“The average worker earns less than $25 a month, agriculture is in shambles, mining is depressed and tourism revenue has proven volatile,” the index states.

Spangenberg said that from what he saw, homes for most Cubans are simple. He said the three daughters (ages 8, 12 and 17) of a minister he worked with in Guanabo shared a bedroom, which was barely large enough for the girls’ three beds.

In Cuba, he also saw laundry hanging on balconies, and cisterns on the tops of homes to catch rainwater for bathing, he said. Mission team members drank and brushed their teeth with bottled water. They used local water only to take showers.

Toilet seats are rare, Spangenberg said. They break easily and are hard to replace.

“Roads that are heavily traveled by tourists and state roads between cities get the most attention,” he said. In the country he saw dirt roads, horse-drawn carts, carriages and wagons.

Spangenberg also saw “a prevalence of police out on street corners and around. We were told at one time groups of more than three are not allowed. If more, they are asked to disperse. You don’t see a lot of people gathered together, talking on street corners.”

According to a U.S. Department of State report, “The security environment in Cuba is relatively stable and characterized by a strong military and police presence throughout the country.”

Janet Copenhaver is the director of technology and innovation for Henry County Public Schools. Her husband, James, who also went on the mission trip, was stationed in Guantanamo Bay during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.


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