A dozen of us “average Americans” head to Cuba with spirituality, friendship and lots of curiosity

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

DES MOINES, Iowa, March 28, 2017 – A dozen of us who leave Wednesday on an 8-day trip to Cuba are just the kind of ambassadors that the U.S. needs to have traveling in the Caribbean nation right now – average Americans.

That’s the insight of Tom Vilsack, the former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former Iowa governor, who spoke Sunday morning to our traveling party and more than 100 other members of Plymouth United Church of Christ in Des Moines.  Vilsack was in the official delegation a year ago that went to Cuba with then-President Barack Obama, to open the new era of almost-normal relations with the former enemy nation that is just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

“I’m very proud to be an American,” Vilsack said, “and one of the reasons I am is the incredible capacity of our country to embrace our former enemies.  We did that long ago with Great Britain. We’ve done it with Mexico.  We’ve done it with Japan, Germany and China. More recently, we’ve done that with the Vietnamese and now Cuba.”

After conflicts, the best way to heal and build relations between nations, he said, “is to get our people together, let them become friends, and build trust in each other.”  That can lead to two-way, people-to-people exchanges in sports, culture, education, business, culture – and in the case of our delegation, religion.

More understanding.  More opportunities.

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Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and governor of Iowa Tom Vilsack, speaking this past Sunday at a Plymouth Church forum on changes and opportunities in Cuba.

Over the past four years, Plymouth has been building a “sister church” relationship with Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana, Cuba.  That Cuban congregation was organized 70 years ago, taking the same name used by Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, which was the home church of the legendary American civil rights leaders Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr.  That proved to be “providential coincidence,” they say now, for in the early 1970s, a social action and retreat center was built adjacent to Havana’s Ebenezer and was named the Martin Luther King Center, in admiration for the American’s work. It has dormitory-like accommodations, where we’ll stay.

Our group is the third small delegation of Plymouth Church members to journey to Cuba.  A year ago, Ebenezer Church sent a delegation to visit here.

My wife Carla Offenburger is the actual Plymouth member from our household, but I’m a Plymouth groupie, attending frequently.  And I can serve as a sort of Catholic guardian when we put these American Congregationalists and Cuban Baptists together.  Or Catholic referee, as needed.

For all 12 in our group, this is our first trip to Cuba.  Plymouth has a “Cuba Partnership Team,” co-chaired by Alicia Claypool and Jan Campbell, that has done a good job of helping us prepare for the adventure.

In mid-November, the team hosted a forum between Sunday morning services on the general history and culture of Cuba, before and after the 1959 revolution.  Speaking were Jon Torgerson, a retired Drake University professor who led several groups of college students to Cuba over a 30-year period, and Grisell Herrera, of Des Moines, who was born in Cuba, worked for that country in its embassy in Japan, emigrated to the U.S. in 2008, and now works in social justice. Their insights were amazing.

Then, you’ll remember, on Nov. 25, former Cuban President Fidel Castro died at the age of 90.  We who were preparing for our trip to Cuba benefitted from the exhaustive media coverage of Castro’s life and his regime’s impact on his country and the world.

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Here are some members of our Plymouth Church delegation to Cuba, gathered this past Sunday to pack some home and personal supplies that will be gifts to our hosts at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana, Cuba. Clockwise from the left front are Carla Offenburger, Wendy Knowles, Sheena Thomas, Mark Doherty, Neil Fagan, Esther Burgett, Amanda Murphy, Alicia Claypool and Rev. David Telfort, an associate minister at Plymouth.  Claypool, who is co-chair of the Cuba Partnership Team at Plymouth, is not part of the traveling delegation but has helped lead preparations.

We’ve also had monthly meetings of our delegation, generally at Plymouth Church, but on Dec. 1 we dipped ourselves into some Cuban culture by meeting over dinner at Ceviche Restaurant, a Cuban bistro in the East Village of Des Moines.

In late January, we had 45-minute conversation on a “Skype” video link with our hired guide Stan Dotson, of Asheville, N.C.  He is a former Baptist pastor, college instructor and administrator who now is a writer, curriculum developer and group facilitator. 

He first traveled to Cuba out of curiosity in 1999 and has now traveled there “32 to 35 times,” generally leading tour groups.  He and his wife Kim Christman, who often travels with him, spent 2015 living in Cuba. 

Over the years, Dotson came to know Pastor Idael Pacheco and the people of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana, and has helped during the negotiations of the “sister church” relationship with Plymouth in Des Moines.

Finally, having Vilsack share his insights on Cuba at the Plymouth forum this past Sunday was a fine wind-up for our preparations.

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Vilsack answering a quick question from Lynn Hicks, who is editor of the editorial pages of the Des Moines Register and is a member of Plymouth Church.

Most of his interactions with Cubans the last two years naturally focused on agriculture, because of his position in the Obama administration.  He left the cabinet in early January to become CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, for which he is traveling extensively to boost consumption and marketing of dairy products.

Vilsack said that despite the normalizing of U.S. relations with Cuba, “we still have a law on the books that makes it very difficult to do business with them.”  That is the U.S. trade embargo in place since the early 1960s, soon after the Cuban revolution.  He said if full agricultural trade were allowed, “it’d be a $2 billion (per year) opportunity for us. Cuba imports 80 percent of the food its people consume, and we should be dominating that market.”  It’s mostly our own rules and regulations that are preventing that.

He said the farm equipment used in Cuban ag production is very old and small, so there’d be great opportunity for American machinery manufacturers, too.

He sees great potential for Cuba in developing crops of organic fruits and vegetables, both for their own use and for export.  “Their operations are small enough that they’re not going to be competitive in commodity agriculture with the major grain producing countries,” he said. “But there is real opportunity for them in organic crops and in value-added agriculture.”

He said farmers’ cooperatives, like we have across rural America, could be established in Cuba, too, probably on a smaller basis, and would well serve the Cuban ag economy.

But he said the U.S. should approach Cuba “with the collective ‘we,’ making it clear that we don’t just look at them as our customers but rather as our partners.  They are very sensitive that they want development to be Cuban-led, and it should be.”  He said our position should “not be telling them what to do, but asking them what they want to do – and explaining how we could help.”

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Tom Vilsack says hello to “my partner” Sally Pederson, who served as lieutenant governor of Iowa when he was governor from 1999-2007.  In the foreground is Sally’s mother Winnie Pederson. The Pedersons are members of Plymouth Church and were on hand for Vilsack’s talk about Cuba this past Sunday. In the background is Alicia Claypool of Plymouth’s Cuba Partnership Team.

Vilsack said he was in the room in Havana in March, 2016, when President Obama sat for a first chat with President Raul Castro, who in 2008 succeeded his brother as the Cuban leader.  “That was one of the most fascinating conversations I’ve ever witnessed,” he said.

“First, President Obama said, ‘President Castro, you know we have great respect for you and the Cuban people, but we have concerns about some of your policies impacting human rights – like the jailing of dissidents and the restrictions on the press,’ ” Vilsack recalled.  “President Castro responded very calmly but directly, saying, ‘Well, we respect you, too, but let me say that in Cuba, we think human rights also include healthcare for all, and access for all to education.’  President Obama acknowledged that and said, ‘Yes, we have our own work to do in those areas.’ ”

But just as there is much to do for both countries, there is much to gain by interacting more and knowing each other better.

For the next week, 12 more of us from Iowa will be doing the best we can at that.

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Esther Burgett and Carla Offenburger read the weight on a luggage scale as Rev. David Telfort hoists the bag, in preparation for the trip to Cuba they and nine other Plymouth Church members are taking.

The odd ways we came to know Cuba

All of us in our delegation — and all of you, too — have different stories about when in our lives, and how, we became conscious of Cuba.

Tom Vilsack, who is now 66, said Sunday that he remembers the public’s “great fear” about Cuba in his boyhood.  Relations between the U.S. and Cuba were so bad in the fall of 1962, soon after a bungled invasion attempt by the U.S., “that we all thought the end of the world was upon us,” he said.

There were indeed threats of nuclear warfare between the Soviet Union, which was supplying Cuba, and the U.S. “I was a 13-year-old kid that fall,” Vilsack told us, “and I can remember actually discarding my school lunch one day because I was convinced by lunchtime, it wouldn’t matter – we’d all be gone!”

I’m 69, old enough that I can remember in the early to mid 1950s, before the revolution, some of the more well-to-do families in my hometown of Shenandoah in southwest Iowa would take vacations to Cuba, enjoying the tropical weather, resorts, nightclubs and casinos.

And I clearly remember when we began reading and hearing about the Castro brothers, Che Guevara and the rest of their guerrilla fighters overthrowing the corrupt and oppressive Batista regime in 1959.  For the first couple of years after the revolution, Fidel Castro was given warm welcomes, fancy receptions and lavish media coverage on his frequent trips to the U.S.  The hate for him came later, after the new regime began confiscating American-owned businesses and allegedly was committing atrocities against Cubans and others who opposed them.

Nevertheless, I still was sufficiently intrigued by Fidel Castro in the 1966-’67 school year, when I was a sophomore at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., that I told my dorm buddies on the second floor of old Mims Hall that I was going to try to telephone Castro – collect. (Just like today, college students were broke back then; unlike today, we students then had no credit cards.)

My pals cheered and jeered me on, as I began working the phone in the cramped booth in our hallway.  “It probably won’t work,” I admitted, “but if it does, it’ll be a helluva story!”

I managed to reach an international phone operator who could speak Spanish, and somehow talked her into connecting me to the office of “Comandante” or “Prime Minister” Castro in Havana.   The gracious operator explained to a staff member who answered that a student journalist in America was calling for the leader of Cuba, seeking an interview, but the leader would be required to pay for the call.  The staff member, as you’ve probably already guessed, said, “No!”

But I can claim some later political success involving Cuba. 

From 1998 to about 2012, as the Iowa Political Caucuses were growing in prominence, I migrated from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party and back, ultimately becoming a “No Party” voter.  But over those 14 years, I successfully introduced resolutions into the platforms of both political parties in two different counties that “the Commissioner of Baseball be ordered by the President to establish a Major League Baseball franchise in Havana, and then encourage American fans to follow their favorite teams there.” That was on the theory that if a steady stream of Americans began traveling in Cuba, only good would happen in relations between the two countries.

And that’s sort of what’s happening now, isn’t it?

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Tom Vilsack, the former U.S. ag secretary and Iowa governor, is still wearing cowboy boots, which have become somewhat of a calling card for him.

You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.

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