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Patient Cubans endure hardship

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I don’t know about you, but my strong suit is not having an abundance of patience.

All too often in our U.S. culture, we reflect the theme of a current television ad that proclaims, “I want it all and I want it now.”

Two weeks ago, I made a sentimental journey to the “Forbidden Island” of the Republic of Cuba. Yes, U.S. citizens can travel to Cuba legally under 12 provisions, one being “support of the Cuban people.”

In the fall of 1995, I became the first U.S. citizen to be approved by the Cuban Ministry of Education to lecture for a full semester at the University of Matanzas located in the city by the same name, Matanzas, Cuba. This was during Cuba’s “Special Period.” The Soviet Union had collapsed and literally overnight, all Soviet aid to Cuba evaporated, leaving the Cuban economy in shambles.

During the spring break of 1993, I assisted in planning a spring break mission project for 12 students from the Baptist Student Union at North Carolina State University. They would be the first to do so in Cuba and be hosted by the First Baptist Church of Matanzas.

There was no bread to be found. Store shelves were almost totally empty of any food items. Pharmacy shelves were virtually empty of the simplest of medications such as aspirin.

Yet, with scarcity of so much of what we would call necessities, the students found their Cuban friends still able to celebrate life with their music, dancing and singing. Yes, in Cuba, even Baptists dance.

When their new Cuban friends were asked what do you do during this time of such terrible hardships, their consistent response was, “We wait.”

When these Baptist students returned home and entered a large chain grocery market, they were sickened by our overabundance of food products. In Cuba where there was no bread much less a box of cereal, here they had a choice of 30 different cereals.

While teaching at the University of Matanzas, many days my students came to class hungry. Often my class time would be interrupted by electrical blackouts due to the lack of petroleum products needed to produce the energy supply. There were times when electrical water pumps were shut off from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. to conserve energy. Water purification was a thing of the past. The chemicals needed to do so were no longer available.

My heart would break in those moments when I would be in a one-on-one conversation with a student and ask them about their dreams for the future and hear their response, “Professor Ned, it is too painful to dream in these times.”

Next I would ask, “Then what will you do?”

The response: “I will wait.”

I fell in love with Cuba, its people, its culture and history. I’ve been back to Cuba more times than I can count, leading educational, religious, agricultural and medical groups from the United States. In so doing I have sought to build bridges between our two nations and to destroy walls built by hate, ignorance and politicians with much to gain by keeping the hate and ignorance alive.

During the latter part of the Obama administration, I began to see demonstrable changes in Cuba as its government began to relax its economic laws and regulations toward a more Vietnam-style economy. Thousands of new privately owned businesses were appearing all over the island. Airbnbs, private restaurants and private shops were being licensed to operate where once they were prohibited.

This last visit this past July came under the Trump administration and its attempt to once again strangle the Cuban people into submission. Private businesses were closing and Airbnbs were having to shut down due to the sudden lack of U.S. visitors.

While walking up Calle Medio I heard a voice cry out, “Professor Ned!” I turned and there stood one of my former students whom I had not seen in 24 years.

He and his wife were now operating a small, struggling restaurant. We embraced and I spent some marvelous hours with Harold.

During my last few hours before my return to Havana and my flight home, I asked Harold how he was handling this new and very difficult period due to the

new Trump policies toward Cuba.

I knew what his reply was going to be before I asked.

“Professor Ned, we wait!”

Edward “Ned” Walsh of Princeton is a retired Baptist denominational worker who served as executive director of Johnston County Habitat for Humanity from 2004-08.