Dordt College News

Dr. Kok visits, teaches in Cuba

March 24, 2005

Dr. John Kok, Dean for the Humanities at Dordt College, recently had the opportunity to travel to Cuba, where he taught an intensive one-week course in philosophy to church leaders affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church in Cuba.

Kok traveled to Cuba at the invitation of Tom Soerens, who supervises the networking agreement between UNELA (the Evangelical University of the Americas in Costa Rica) and the CRCC (Christian Reformed Church in Cuba). Soerens taught theology and philosophy at Dordt College from 1997-2000.

Cuban church leaders were lacking a key course in Christian Philosophy, which Kok was able to provide. Soerens said, “We helped them take a key step toward getting their college degree and treated them to a great thought-provoking introduction to what is probably quite novel: a uniquely Christian take on philosophy.” Soerens served as Kok’s Spanish interpreter throughout the 10 days he was working and touring Cuba. Cuban Transportation

Dr. Kok said he brought over 100 pounds of luggage to Cuba, mostly Bibles, clothes, and basic medicines, and came back with an almost empty duffle bag, leaving even dirty laundry behind to his hosts’ delight. “There’s just incredible need,” he commented, “Cubans are destitute in terms of economic prosperity.” He noted that only Cubans with sources of income from family members outside of the country or in key government positions are prosperous.

Despite that, Kok said in many ways the people are happy, content, and very sociable. He found the country of Cuba in general to have good infrastructure, with residences that are clean, safe and colorful. However, the “Central Committee” micro-manages every aspect of Cuban life, which means a permit is required to make any changes in one’s home or occupation. Even when permits are granted, supplies such as paint, windows, concrete, etc., are so limited that updating a structure literally takes years.

The same is true of vehicles: you must first apply for a permit to own a vehicle, and if granted the permit and you can afford one, most of the cars available pre-date Fidel’s revolution in 1959. Many are well cared for and most are retrofitted to run on diesel fuel. Only government officials or tourist rental agencies own new vehicles. Some vehicle licenses are issued with the condition that drivers must pick up hitchhikers along the road, because of a severe shortage of public transit availability. Kok said busses are usually filled to capacity. Other modes of transportation include bicycles, horse and mule buggies, or walking.

Food is also strictly controlled unless you have outside connections: each Cuban is rationed five pounds of rice and a chicken per month, and one bun per person per day, etc. Kok said meals consist primarily of beans and rice, with cabbage on the side. Cattle are owned by the government, but people are allowed to raise hogs: the problem is, they have no feed for fattening livestock, and the government also owns the slaughterhouses. Kok was told that farmers make more by selling their ration of gas than they get from farming. Sugarcane and citrus fruits are among Cuba’s primary crops; but most of the yield is exported.

Educationally, the students are required to move away from home to government run boarding schools after fifth grade. This gives the government much greater influence over young people during their formative years.

Cuba has two forms of currency: the regular peso, and the convertible peso (issued to tourists and to Cubans who get money sent them by friends and family abroad) which is based on the U.S. dollar. Well-stocked government-run stores cater to the wants of those with convertible pesos. Stores that only take the regular peso usually have next to nothing to sell.

A total of 125 CRCC meeting places in the country offer Cubans a place to worship. Kok said the churches he visited were vibrant, and he was particularly impressed with the leadership of young women in congregations. Cuba’s government makes religious visas readily available, so visiting ministry teams have provided the churches with musical instruments and electronic equipment.

Overall, Kok’s impression of the people living in Cuba was that despite the little that they have, they are generally happy and content. He sensed, however, a deep-seated frustration and fatigue over their inability to change their lives in any significant way for well into the future. Fidel Castro has been president of Cuba since 1959, and it is unknown what will happen in the country when he vacates that leadership position.

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