By Jean Clark
Ted Braun’s interest in Cuba was sparked by an educational trip there in 1974. In line with his compassion for human relationships, he has championed the progressive ideas carried out by the Cuban people after the revolution. Through the Cuban Council of Churches, with permits from the U.S. Treasury, the Rev. Dr. Braun led 26 Cuban Study Seminars to learn about these ideas until restrictions disallowed them in 2005. Attending conferences, workshops, Sister City meetings and activities at Matanzas Seminary in Havana, he has traveled to Cuba a total of 42 times. With the relaxing of travel restrictions under the present administration, Braun was able to lead another study seminar last February with 11 participants from various parts of the country.
The United States government instituted a commercial, economic and financial embargo on Cuba in 1960. There has been a rocky détente with the Cuban government all these decades. The Rev. Braun has always obtained permission from the U.S. government for travel permits for the seminars, which serve a religious and educational purpose. Braun has been in an unique position to observe changes in Cuba as they have occurred over the years.
A panel of Braun's and four of the participants of this most recent seminar, titled “Surprising Cuba,” was held recently in Pleasant Hill. Patricia Lockett of Nashville, Janeen Carrell of Pleasant Hill and Anne and Erin Charbonnet-Baker of Iowa participated.
Their first impression upon entering Cuba was the absence of signs and billboards with commercial advertisements. Instead, there were posters with historical figures depicted such as Ché Guevara, José Marti or Fidel Castro with inspirational quotes. They were saddened at the site of architecturally beautiful buildings crumbling into decay. The amazing pre-1958 cars were either meticulously maintained or held together with duct tape. Some of the passengers entering the country were carrying car parts, tires or bumpers in with them. As a result of the embargo, materials for repairs are in short supply or nonexistent.
The seminar included visits to a variety of places indicative of the results of the Cuban revolution in Havana and Santiago de Cuba. The Literacy Museum highlighted the year-long effort to abolish illiteracy in Cuba in 1961. “Literacy Brigades” were sent out into the countryside to construct schools, train new educators, and teach the peasants to read and write. The result was raising the national literacy rate to 99 percent. Education is free on all levels in Cuba and many foreigners flock to the engineering and medical schools for training.
Tourism has been encouraged to bring capital into the country, but, unfortunately, it has also brought back prostitution, gambling and begging that had been pretty much eliminated after the revolution. The panel members were quite impressed with their visit to the Solidarity with Panama Special School. The children in wheelchairs at this school received more than one-on-one attention. They were taught the skills possible for them in self-sustaining occupations like computer technology. Other sites visited in Havana were the Cuban Economic Model at Friendship House, the Grandparents’ House, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, the National Center for Sex Education and the Cuban Council of Churches.
The group flew to Santiago de Cuba on the southeastern part of the island. There, they visited the Frank Pais (a Cuban freedom fighter with Fidel Castro) birth house, toured St. Ifigenia Cemetery, San Juan Hill, the Moncada Garrison and Moro Castle. They learned more about Cuban’s health system at a medical clinic and political system from the Federation of Cuban Women. Lockett noted that infant mortality rates and life expectancy were better in Cuba then in many parts of Nashville.
In Santiago de Cuba they touched base with Elmer Lavastida and Gisela Perez at the Second Baptist Church, sister church to Pleasant Hill Community Church, UCC. Other areas visited were the Fern Garden and Gran Piedra before returning to Havana. One of the highlights of the trip was participation in a block party sponsored by a CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution). There was music, games for all ages, dancing, food and, of course, rum. The American visitors noted that the public parks were full of people, day and night, and music was everywhere.
This week in Pleasant Hill:
• Wednesday, Feb 5 — Free income tax filing begins at Pleasant Hill Community House every Wednesday and Friday. Appointments are required. Call 277-3096.
• Saturday, Feb. 8 — Film Festival on “Big History” from 9:30 a.m. to noon in Room 4 of Pleasant Hill Community Church as an observance of Evolution Weekend. Call 277-5467.
• Tuesday, Feb 11 — Hike Caney Fork Gorge Trail. Meet at 11 a.m. in the Pleasant Hill Community Church parking lot to carpool. Call 277-3518, ext 103.