Why two area farm officials will follow pope’s trip to Cuba closely

By: By Tom Dermody

Caption: At left, Thomas Marten, now a member of St. Dominic Parish, Wyoming and representing the Illinois Farm Bureau, gives baseballs out to children in Vinales, Pinar Del Rio, Cuba. At right, Mark Albertson, a member of St. Luke Parish in Eureka and director of strategic market development for the Illinois Soybean Association, stands in a central Illinois field earlier this month with Ruben Romos, commercial attache from Cuba.


Agricultural matters have taken Mark Albertson and Thomas Marten to Cuba several times in the last three years, but when Pope Francis visits the island nation Sept. 19-22 the two central Illinois farm representatives will be watching for the growth of seeds of hope the Catholic Church has helped to plant.

“I don’t expect there to be major changes in Cuba that will happen overnight,” said Albertson, director of strategic market development for the Illinois Soybean Association and an active member of St. Luke Parish in Eureka. “Nothing in Cuba changes quickly. But I do expect that the pope will help pressure the Cuban government in a friendly way to make some changes in their human rights record.”

“I think the Cuban people will warmly greet the Holy Father,” agreed Marten, the new Stark County Farm Bureau manager who recently moved to Wyoming and joined St. Dominic Parish. “My personal hope is to see the church be able to have more freedom again. I think it’s important for Catholics and all Christians to really pray for Cuba.”

Both Albertson and Marten shared their experiences in Cuba with The Catholic Post in advance of Pope Francis’ visit, which precedes his trip to the United States. The pope’s Cuba schedule includes Masses in the Revolution Squares in Havana and Holguin and at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in El Cobre. He will also meet with Cuban President Raul Castro and greet young people, families, and the island’s bishops, clergy and seminarians.

“It’s killing me to not be there,” admitted Albertson, whose first trip to Cuba in 2012 ended the day before Pope Benedict XVI arrived on his historic visit.

Albertson, who represents the interests of Illinois’ soybean farmers in discussions with Cuban officials, is scheduled to return to Cuba for the fourth time in November. He said food is exempt from the U.S. embargo, but that trade is highly regulated.

“There’s really no way to understand Cuba completely unless you actually visit,” said Albertson, who is grateful for the opportunities he’s had to interact with the Cuban people, especially farmers.

“As Americans we think that the Cubans don’t like us, and that’s not true,” he said. “The Cuban people are so friendly and they want to speak with Americans.”

He described the warm welcome his group received from farmers outside Havana when his contingent arrived unannounced on a recent trip. In discussing the needs of rural dwellers on the island, Albertson was surprised to learn their requests were basic — not equipment parts but rather shovels, hand-tools, and work gloves.

Marten, meanwhile, told of a trip to the island’s rural western side and seeing oxen still being used.

“It was like taking a step back 100 years,” he said. “When I think of oxen, I think of the Oregon Trail.”

Basic machinery would be a great help to Cuban farmers and improve their quality of life, he said. Meanwhile, Cuba has much to offer the U.S. agriculturally, including organic honey, citrus, and high quality searfood.

Albertson and Marten both see mutual economic benefits to increased trade and tourism with Cuba and are hopeful that the 55-year-old, U.S.-imposed embargo will soon be lifted. Pope Francis, they point out, is widely credited with helping to thaw relations between the nations, including a key role in the surprise announcement in December of a pursuit of renewed diplomatic ties. The U.S. Embassy in Cuba was reopened on Aug. 14.

But in addition to agricultural interests, the pair of local Catholics readily talk about the spiritual benefits of closer relations between the faithful of the United States and Cuba. Even though the trade embargo remains and there are some travel restrictions, “it’s entirely legal and encouraged for Americans to go to Cuba either for religious purposes or people-to-people travel,” said Albertson.

“It was helpful for me to visit Cuba and talk to everyday Cubans firsthand,” he told The Catholic Post. “I also think it’s helpful for Catholics to visit Cuba and to go to church and worship with Cubans,” something he and Marten did together at a Havana church. The crowd attending was very sparse, they said.

For more than 50 years, the spiritual fraternity between Catholics on the island and those in the United States have been eroded because of strained relations between the two nations.

“I think we as Catholics have a duty to be missionaries,” said Marten. “There are so many opportunities for positive change.”

At a recent meeting in Chicago with politicians and exporters, Albertson said he told the group “it is time the U.S. unleash its most powerful weapon on Cuba — and that is love and friendship.”

Though he said the remark drew laughter, he stressed “I believe that.”

The Goodfield resident and married father of five who teaches CCD at St. Luke Parish cites a verse from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians as his guiding principal: “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping one command, love your neighbor as yourself. If you bite and devour one another, watch out or you will be destroyed by one another.”

“If we approach this issue from the standpoint of love and friendship and do what the Bible tells us, we’ll have a lot more success than approaching it from a military perspective,” said Albertson.

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