Cuba IV: Rethinking development in a revolutionary situation

“Peace + Friendship = Development”

My time in the Dominican Republic and Mexico had convinced me that most proponents of “development” failed to address the unjust structures in the world, including inequalities that have roots in colonial times. Development needed to be understood (as Gustavo Gutiérrez and others argued) in terms of liberation: a radical transformation of global systems of power and domination.

And so, once I had the opportunity to work among churches in Cuba, I was eager to learn about the practice of development in a revolutionary, socialist society.

In the years after the Cuban government’s rapprochement with organized religion in the early 1990s, some churches and especially their ecumenical agencies made major efforts to contribute to the overall well-being of Cuban society. Cuba was in its “special period” of adjustment to the loss of the Soviet Union as a major trade and aid partner. Cuban churches drew from their own creativity and resources from their global partners to assist.

Today, church-based development programs include strong emergency response capacity and training to manage small businesses and to produce and conserve food (including urban farming). Such training includes empowerment of vulnerable groups, notably farmers with disabilities and senior citizens.

Juan Carlos Cabrera, Sibanicú, Camagüey: a hearing-impaired participant in the CIC’s project with farmers who have disabilities.

The Cuban Council of Churches (CIC) has long supported a pastoral ministry among people living with disabilities. In recent years, that ministry began to focus on farmers with disabilities. You can hear from some of the families and learn about their work in a video I helped to make with The United Church of Canada in 2019. 

In Cárdenas (near Varadero in Matanzas province), the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue (CCRD) has run a “meals-on-wheels” style program for people in need because of age or illness. Support goes beyond delivery of a daily meal, and includes (according to need) provision of clothing, laundry service, house-keeping, medication, and attention to health and hygiene. 

Much of the food used in that program (and in schools and hospitals around Cárdenas) is produced at CCRD’s 32-hectare farm, El Retiro. It is also a place for training of farmers in the area. You can read more about the farm and about agriculture in Cuba in an article by Gary Kenny (a friend and former staff colleague at the United Church).

CCRD’s farm: “development means that… everyone has a voice”

In conversations with CCRD staff in March 2018, the word “development” kept coming up. I asked them what the concept meant to them. At first, they did what I sometimes do: add an adjective (“community development” or “participatory development”) or an object (“development of capacities”). Eventually, they said: “that everyone has a voice.” And: “Participation means the extent to which people can participate in community, as persons; to express themselves, with their collective and individual interests.” 

In practical terms, that means holding fast to a vision of the common good that embraces all—even as the Cuban government opens the economy to small business initiatives. Tourists already know independent restaurants (paladares) and bed-and-breakfast places (casas particulares). But now there are beauticians, repair shops, and designers of fashion and everything else. In Cuba, they are called cuentapropistas: people who work on their “own account.”

At the same time, the government also encourages people to take up farming. But the new farmers need training in everything from bookkeeping to organic farming practice. This work is carried out in a decentralized way by the CIC together with CCRD and various NGOs and state agencies. Challenges include lack of machinery; ecological awareness; impacts of climate change (drought, hurricanes); market distortions (some hotels buy directly from farmers, bypassing public systems intended to ensure food security for all); and the risk of introduction of GM seeds. 

The Cuban Council of Churches’ areas of work.

As market systems evolve and while holding fast to that vision of the common good, CIC and CCRD are taking up concepts of “social and solidarity economies” and structures of cooperatives (as opposed to individual or competitive initiatives). These are not top-down programs, but initiatives hatched in networks across the country. The idea is to get people with different interests matched up with people who have capacity and experience within the same area, working with municipalities, churches and other non-governmental organizations. The networks come together without money for projects, but proposals can emerge from their work—which is what happened with the effort to support farmers with disabilities.

In Cuba and beyond, debates continue about development. We may have “sustainable development goals,” but does the practice change? Are we transforming systems and practicing liberation?

From their experience, Cuban church leaders and theologians contribute to the global ecumenical conversation that unfolds in the World Council of Churches and the ACT Alliance of 135 faith-based development and relief agencies.

In December 2010, Reinerio Arce (a former CIC president who was then serving as rector of the Evangelical Seminary of Theology in Matanzas) called for what he called “prophetic diakonia.” (Diakonia is a Greek word used in the New Testament to refer to service—every kind of service: helping people, serving at tables, and offering leadership in faith communities.)

“In our country the churches are playing a more active role serving the people in need at this moment when our economy is shifting increasingly; we need to build capacity for this task,” he said an interview with the WCC news service.

“God sends us out in mission to bring the good news to the poor and oppressed, in word and in deed. Faithful to this call, we try to serve human needs, focusing on the marginalized, the ‘least of these,’ not only by comforting them but also by addressing the root causes of their pain, sorrow and shortages. This ministry of prophetic diakonia seeks to confront the powers of this world that lead to violence, exclusion, death and destruction, and it calls for the transformation of unjust structures and practices into God’s kingdom of justice, with fullness of life for all and for creation.” 

In Matanzas on Oct. 4, 2016, we watched on TV (left) as Hurricane Matthew crossed southwest Haiti before moving on to eastern Cuba. Three days later, I joined CIC staff as they continued their emergency response (right), including provision of shelter in churches.

Colombians ask: “Peace? What peace?”

Lilia Solano, a human rights defender who was one of the organisers of Peace, What Peace?

In recent days, I participated in a zoom-based conference with the Peace Commission of Colombia’s Senate. Since a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the largest guerrilla army, the FARC, was signed in 2016, implementation has not gone well.

By the end of 2020, at least 238 former fighters had been murdered—victims of targeted assassinations.

Meanwhile, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented more than 400 slayings of human rights defenders since 2016, of which 108 happened in 2019 and 53 in 2020. Human rights defenders include community, small-farmer, women, LGBTI, Indigenous, and Afro-Colombian leaders as well as activists for the rights of victims and their families.

My own presentation followed those of some of my friends and heroes: 

  • Former Senator Piedad Córdoba, who led efforts to free people who had been captured by the FARC in years before the peace accords
  • The Portuguese activist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, who said that “what has prevailed until now is neoliberal peace” that only opens space for transnational corporations. What has to change are the conditions that led young people to join the guerrillas.
  • From ecumenical colleagues came the reminder that the struggle for peace with justice must be global. Rudelmar Bueno de Faria of the ACT Alliance noted the role of religion in the conflict in Colombia, warning that history will not forgive those who have “played with the peace processes.”

In my remarks, I went a bit further regarding the questionable role of religious organizations in the search for peace.

I was at the marvellous ecumenical seminary in Matanzas, Cuba, in October 2016, when news came that a referendum to approve Colombia’s peace agreement had failed. It was quickly understood that fundamentalist Christians had intervened in the public debate, and rallied their bases to vote no by arguing that the peace agreement promoted “gender ideology” and would destroy the family. In reality, the FARC rebel army had acknowledged its crimes against women and LGBTI people, and apologized. Both sides pledged to do better on gender justice and the rights of LGBTI people.

For me, having worked with faith-based organisations in Colombia and their allies abroad since 1993, the vote result and the reality that some Christians worked against peace, was a disappointment. I had seen people like Lilia Solano (pictured above), a Mennonite who works among human rights NGOs and in Colombia’s legislative branch, and Fr. Javier Giraldo, the Jesuit human rights defender and founder of the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace, risk their lives for peace. I thought of friends who are leaders of the Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran and Mennonite Churches and Roman Catholic religious communities who would share my disappointment, together with people in organisations like the DiPaz inter-church peace coalition, the Mesa Ecuménica por la Paz, and the popular educators and trainers of community journalists at CEPALC.

Their persistent witness guided me when I spoke the next morning to people who were gathered at the seminary to celebrate its 70th anniversary and to consider the future of ecumenical theological education in Latin America and the Caribbean, I said it seemed to me that the voices of moderate or progressive Christians were marginalised or discounted in a climate of fear generated by the shrill voices of the Christian right and their political backers. That day in Cuba, I said:

“A good theological education, offers ways to read the bible, to interpret scripture, to understand the limits church authority in civil society. In a good theological school, one learns to use the Bible to interpret the Bible, to use the texts that we have of the teachings of Jesus about the love of God and of neighbour so as to understand other parts of the bible. Without good theological education—and, by extension, good Christian education within the churches—the public square is surrendered to the most retrograde and hate-filled voices of Christian fundamentalism, empty of love and forgiveness.”

My remarks Thursday, March 18, to the Colombian Senate’s peace conference took up similar themes.

“This increase of inequality and violence contrasts with the experience of churches and social movements that uphold fullness of life and defend the dignity of women and LGBTI people. They create spaces for mutual listening, weaving networks and planting seeds of peace and justice as they raise their voices for a world of greater solidarity.

“Those of us who are too often the objects—and victims—of hate speech need your voices, you artisans of peace, and of religious leaders who promote an understanding of Christianity that is inclusive and respectful of diversity, who promote contextual and liberation theologies, who can join dialogue over differences and are reflections of the reality in which we live: who speak, in the end, of the love that should exist among all of us

“In place of fear and prejudice, let us build alliances of solidarity across all borders.”

One boat, one storm? Some youthful inspirations for mutual support

News reports last week said that levels of hunger in Central America have almost quadrupled in the past four years, a consequence of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 and years of extreme climate events. 

That news set me to thinking about that comforting notion that the pandemic has somehow placed us all in the same boat—and then as well to the reactions to it: we may be in the same storm, but we’re in different boats. 

I first encountered the metaphor of a lifeboat to represent all of humanity when I was very young, perhaps 12 years old. My parents thought it was important that we hear a presentation by Dr. Robert McClure, the renowned medical missionary who was serving as Moderator of The United Church of Canada (1968-71). He was best known for his years of service in China in the decades before the triumph of the revolution in 1949, but he served after that in many parts of the world. 

The auditorium of Kelowna’s First United Church was full, and we sat near the back. My memory is that Dr. McClure used the technology of the time, an overhead projector, and that one of the images was a simple line drawing of people in a boat. Most of them were at one end of the boat, and the boat looked like it was about to capsize. On the other hand, it may be that his words enabled me to make in my mind a drawing of the boat that he described. His point was about global distribution of resources. Some of us have too much; others nothing at all. It is one boat one planet: your stuff won’t save you.

Not quite a decade later, I met Dr. McClure again. We were both at the United Church’s Naramata Centre at the end of April 1978. 

And, surprise, I found my notes of the event. He was in Naramata to speak at a United Church men’s conference; I was there with a very ecumenical group of about 40 youth that was attached to the Kamloops Okanagan Presbytery, and with which I stayed connected over several years during breaks from my studies in Ottawa. I had not remembered this, but my notes say that our resource person for the weekend was Gary Paterson, then the minister of the United Church congregation in Winfield, BC; decades later he too would be a Moderator. And it was Gary who introduced Dr. McClure to our group in a Saturday afternoon gathering in the upper room of a building called The Loft.

He began by “taking us” in a Concorde super-sonic jet, six-and-a-half-hours from London to Singapore. “Our world isn’t shrinking. It’s shrunk, and will continue to do so.” He spoke for about 35 minutes, and concluded: “Canada is your blessing. Now: what will you do with it?”

In between, he told us of his life in Toronto, where he lived on the 19th floor of an apartment building. He told us of the rules designed for safe living: you are not to talk to your neighbours; walk only in well-lit areas, etc. 

Then he spoke of the river people of Sarawak (a Malaysian state on north coast of northern Borneo). “They live in long houses, like an apartment building turned on its side.” The long houses were divided into small apartments, side-by-side, each family having a part that was its own. “They’ve been there for 3,000 years,” he said. “They adopted this system of mutual support.” The apartments were joined together by a long, covered verandah over the river. “Neighbours are close and friends are forever.”

He offered an example. “My hospital was near the river mouth. A woman came down—a week-long journey in each direction—for a hysterectomy. I asked her, ‘Where are your children? How could you leave your children?’ ‘Oh, but doctor,’ she said, ‘we’re long-house people. The neighbours will care for them while I’m gone. Next month when my neighbour comes down, I’ll care for her children. We’re long-house people.’”

That’s mutual support. “When you’re invited to a wedding in Borneo, it’s a commitment for you too. You pledge to see that Joe and Sally will stay together, and when problems arise, you go see Joe and tell him to get his act together, and you can bet Sally will be told something by the women. One marriage in a thousand breaks down. That’s mutual support.”

He talked about the role of youth in other countries that he had visited. Read 42 years later, some of his examples of youthful collaboration seem debateable—Singapore in the years when Lee Kuan Yew exercised firm control—but the point was that governments should trust youth with more responsibility for positive social change, and that youth should take advantage of the responsibility they have now.

Twice, then, I was inspired by McClure to think of issues in their global dimensions. In subsequent years, I learned more about him and about China and about the role of Canadian missionaries there. 

Dr. McClure is sometimes held in tension with the life and witness of Canadian supporters of the Chinese Revolution, including Rev. James Endicott, a United Church missionary, and Dr. Norman Bethune (son of a Presbyterian minister) who died in 1939 while serving as a battlefield surgeon with one of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary armies. 

While I tend to the Endicott and Bethune sides of those political and theological reflections, I also celebrate McClure’s choice to live most of his life among the impoverished and marginalized peoples of the Earth, and his challenge to the rest of us to use our blessings to care for each other and the planet.

As I was putting together these notes about my memories of Dr. McClure, I was invited by a friend to see actors in a Zoom reading of a new play, China 1938, by Diane Forrest held March 8. Forrest is a writer and editor long involved in Alumnae Theatre’s new play development group and is also co-author with McClure of a 1988 volume, Vintage McClure. The play tells the story of the single encounter between McClure and Bethune in China in 1938, and is told from the perspective of the one woman who knows what happened: McClure’s widow, Amy. This play is also an inspiration, and I hope that (after the pandemic), it gets a full stage treatment.