Compelling Diary of November 2019 Trip to Santa Cruz del Norte
This is my fourth report on St. Luke’s partnership with the Episcopal Church in Cuba and in particular with our partner parish in Santa Cruz del Norte. In presenting this report, I would like to cover two topics, namely progress on our planned construction project at Santa Cruz and conditions in Cuba since our visit last year. Let me start with deteriorating conditions in Cuba since this might affect the American Episcopal Church’s work in Cuba moving forward.
Since our visit last year, the Trump administration has doubled down on travel restrictions placed on Americans visiting Cuba. For instance, it used to be possible to fly from the United States to several Cuban cities, not just Havana. Now, Havana is the only point of entry and departure. Unless air traffic to Cuba is entirely cut off (a possibility considering the way things are going in US/Cuba relations) this will not affect St. Luke’s because our partner parish in Santa Cruz del Norte is only an hour east of the Havana airport and easily accessible by surface transportation. But for other American Episcopal churches with partnerships at a distance from Havana, this new policy could create transportation hardships. Few American’s realize how large Cuba is. For example, the distance between Havana and Guantanamo on the other end of the island, is roughly the distance between New York City and Cleveland and Cuban roads outside of Havana do not lend themselves to fast travel. On the other hand, with hardships in Cuba increasing, this is exactly the time to redouble our efforts to connect with our Cuban brothers and sisters!
Our group of nine people (including five who had been on previous trips to Cuba) witnessed increased depravations almost from the moment we landed at Havana airport. Because of more restricted travel from the United States, there were far fewer tourists than the year before and as a consequence, restaurants that had been crowded a year ago were largely empty. Because of increased US sanctions, beggars on the street were more numerous. When we drove from Havana to Santa Cruz del Norte, traffic seemed lighter. There were also long lines at gas stations no doubt because of petroleum cutbacks from Venezuela.
Still, we found the people as friendly to Americans as ever. Many remembered Obama’s visit in 2016 when there was great hope for a more positive relationship between Cuba and the United States. On several occasions we were asked when America might have a president more friendlily to their country. Hope still remains high that, with Fidel gone, Cuba will eventually move more quickly to democracy. But there is also a lingering fear that with travel restrictions and other cutbacks implemented under the current administration in Washington this might not happen any time soon.
The primary focus of our trip was to explore how St Luke’s might help Santa Cruz del Norte replace the church’s damaged roof for which we have raised almost $31,000. But we were also interested in seeing the renovations of the dormitories at the Episcopal Cathedral in Havana funded by Trinity Church Wall Street, and, in light of these renovations, to learn how Trinity Wall Street has worked with the Cathedral on this project. Consequently, our first order of business was to meet with Pepe Bringas, the Cathedral administrator, and Juan Pons, the project manager not only for the Cathedral dorms but also the water purification system we installed last year at Santa Cruz.
We first were given a tour of the almost completed dormitory which (for me at least) was just short of miraculous. From an almost uninhabitable residence we occupied on our first trip to Havana in 2016 (limited hot water, no air-conditioning, cramped living quarters, mold in the bathrooms) the dorms are now clean and modern, each suite and bunk room with its own bathing facilities and central air-conditioning. It was amazing to see what the $160,000 provided by Trinity Wall Street could accomplish despite a spike in the price of building materials like concrete.
We then reviewed with Pepe Bringas the checks and balances by which the dormitory construction was funded and managed. Basically, Trinity Wall Street transferred their $160,000 gift to the Cathedral’s bank in Havana in two installments. Materials were then bought locally under the supervision of Juan Pons but each time money was drawn from the Havana bank account to pay for these materials, Pepe Bringas and the Bishop would sign off. All invoices for materials and labor were painstakingly documented. Expenditures were then uploaded to a Trinity Wall Street website for their Vestry to see. Trinity Wall Street also periodically received updates from the Cathedral on construction progress via receipts and photos. In addition, a representative of Trinity Wall Street made at least one visit to Havana to review construction progress. We later learned that the Cathedral under Juan Pons leadership had to go through three contractors before getting one with whom they were comfortable. In other words, even though there were temporary setbacks, the project was well managed.
We decided that we will follow a similar procedure for Santa Cruz. Father Frank, the Rector of our partner parish, will establish an account at a local bank. St. Luke’s money will then be wired to the Cathedral’s bank in Havana in installments and then, after final construction plans have been approved by us and by the Bishop and Pepe Bringas, transferred in smaller increments to the local account in Santa Cruz as work progresses there. The economy in Cuba is largely cash-based and so funds have to be available to buy materials and pay local workers. Juan Pons will supervise the construction (he will rent a small apartment in Santa Cruz so that he can periodically be on site) and he and Father Frank will oversee the use of the money St. Luke’s has provided. Santa Cruz will then regularly update both the Cathedral and St. Luke’s on progress much as the Cathedral has regularly updated Trinity Wall Street on the dorm construction. In other words, St. Luke’s will also receive construction narratives, receipts, and photos in addition to visits from St. Luke’s parish members.
The next order of business was to travel to Santa Cruz del Norte to inspect the church. With us was St. Luke’s member Kai Young who is a contractor in Darien and knows about roof construction.
The church building in Santa Cruz faces numerous challenges. For instance, we learned from Kai that in the original construction, the roofing wasn’t properly installed causing water to seep into the church below causing extensive damage to the walls and to the iron rebar that holds up the roof. We also learned that the concrete used in the original construction had been made with beach sand which has a high salt content that over the years has compromised the durability of the structure.
The ideal solution, of course, would be to replace the roof entirely and rebuild the walls below; but this would take two to three years to complete and be extremely expensive. Would the St. Luke’s Vestry commit to additional money above the $31,000 we had already raised? Moreover (and, perhaps most importantly), could Santa Cruz del Norte itself afford a long delay in use of their building that might further compromise its ability to attract and keep new members?
We now have now come up with a more modest proposal for the repair of the existing roof that is within our budget and will keep the church going for at least another twenty to thirty years after which (and with a larger congregation) a new church might eventually be built. With the funding protocols established with the Bishop and with Father Frank, we are now ready to move forward. Stay tuned!
Before going back to Havana and our flight home, we had two more positive experiences. On Saturday, we attended a baseball game involving the Santa Cruz Episcopal Church Marlins, the baseball team for which St. Luke’s had provided equipment two years before. When the church first received this equipment, the Marlins consisted of ten players. Today, there are 100! Just before the game, with team members and parents looking on, we handed out the additional equipment we had brought with us. The team’s catcher was so proud to now have a chest guard, mask, and a proper catcher’s mitt. And a lefty Father Frank had told us about was overwhelmed to now have a left-handed glove (he had been using one for a right-handed player). Then on Sunday, just before the service, we saw small children entering the church courtyard with large water jars to fill up at the water purification system we had installed the previous year.
Words can’t describe how good we all felt to see St. Luke’s support at work!
 For past trips, see https://www.episcopalcafe.com/a-visit-to-cuba/; https://www.episcopalcafe.com/cuba-revisited/; https://www.friendsofeccuba.org/single-post/2019/01/19/St-Lukes-installs-water-system-at-Santa-Cruz-del-Norte Thanks to Tony Larino for editing this report.