Effects of the Papal Visit to Cuba in 1998

From Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America, by Alma Guillermoprieto (Vintage, 2001), pp. 97-99:

The issue of Granma I acquire from a vendor in front of the cathedral is eight pages thick, tabloid-size. There is such a severe paper shortage in Havana these days that toilet paper is nonexistent, and, for lack of anything to buy in bookstores or anything to buy books with, better-off Cubans, having already sold or bartered their best furniture, their cutlery, their paintings, their picture frames, the statues on their family crypt, their jewelry, and their garden ornaments, have now taken to delivering the contents of their bookshelves to the used-book dealers who operate stalls in front of the former Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. The toilet paper problem and the Granma problem are not unrelated; in poor countries, squares of newsprint are a common substitute for toilet paper, but in Cuba the skinny—and scarce—issues of Granma are not enough to fill the need, and so I wonder if the stacks of Marxist literature that are said to go for a song these days are being put to good use—I dare not ask my friends. In any event, the coverage of the papal visit in the current issue of Granma makes interesting reading, for beyond the live broadcasts, it is the only information about the visit to which most Cubans have access. In today’s Granma, for example, they learn that the world media “classifies the meeting between Fidel and Pope John Paul II as ‘historic,'” that a congressman in El Salvador “classified the visit as transcendental,” and that the Jamaican daily The Observer “writes that the visit … is an example of rejection towards the U.S. embargo policies.” The front page describes at length yesterday’s meeting between the pope and representatives of Cuban culture—among them, movie directors whose works have been censored and intellectuals who have learned to keep their opinions about Fidel Castro closely to themselves. Without quoting him directly (or any other Church hierarch by name), Granma tells us that the pope “underlined that in Cuba one can speak of a fertile cultural dialogue, which is the guarantee for more harmonic growth and an increase in the initiatives and creativity among the members of a civil society.” A further article describes with some sense of color the enthusiastic reception given to the pope by the youth of Camagüey. If memory serves, there is no significant difference between these stories and those describing earlier state visits by, say, Michael Manley or Pham Van Dong.

At the newly refurbished Hotel Ambos Mundos (the words “where Hemingway used to stay” are invariably attached to its name), we sit at the bar and watch the end of this day’s mass. It is being broadcast live from Santiago, the eastern city that prides itself on its militant nationalistic spirit, and where Fidel’s 1953 assault on the Moncada barracks kindled the armed rebellion that would bring him to power in 1959. It is easy to forget that the Cuban nation is not yet a century old, but in Santiago the long fight for independence from Spain and freedom from United States dominion, and the central importance of the Sierra Maestra in the Fidelista revolution, are never forgotten. The pope’s Cuban advisers have no doubt suggested that Santiago is the perfect place to address the question of patriotism and the nation during his homily.

The crucial words of the day, in fact, are not spoken by John Paul or even by the cardinal of Havana, Jaime Ortega, who as a young priest spent some time in the notorious work camps where in the mid-1960s Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, militant Catholics, and even unruly youths such as the now-hallowed singer Pablo Milanés were sent to have their thinking corrected. The statement that will echo the longest—and that may well be the first statement critical of the Revolution to be distributed by a state-controlled medium in the last thirty years or so—comes in the course of a salutation to the pope by the bishop of Santiago, Pedro Meurice, who now holds the same position as the lifesaving bishop Pérez Serantes of so long ago. The heart of Meurice’s impassioned declaration, much quoted since then, comes when he talks of a “growing number of Cubans who have confused the fatherland with a single party, the nation with the historical process we have lived through during the last few decades, and culture with an ideology.”

Friends familiar with Catholic policy say that the Vatican probably decided from the first that the pope, in his role as head of state, should not be the one to refer specifically to the problems of the Catholic Church in Cuba, and that Cardinal Ortega should also remain above the fray, leaving Meurice to vent the feelings of the priests and other Catholics during his official salutation to the pope. Foreign journalists read into Meurice s speech the Vatican’s statement of defiance, but a complementary interpretation is possible: together with the fact that the pope chose to bring up the issue of political prisoners—there are hundreds of them—only at a meeting he knew would not be televised, it could stand as evidence of the diligence with which the Church is seeking to avoid a counterproductive confrontation with Fidel, his party, or his faithful during this trip. This is not to say that the Church ignored the impact Meurice s words were likely to have. He is known as a firebrand, and Santiago, the fiery town, is said to be the place where anti-Castro sentiment is running strongest. It is here that the first loud chants of’ “Libertad! Libertad!” will be heard during the mass.

Friends who were there will tell me later that significant numbers of Fidelista Cubans walked out during Meurice’s speech, that significant numbers of Catholics cheered wildly, and that in general in the plaza the feeling was that something enormous and irrevocable had taken place. But in the streets of downtown Havana, Meurice’s words have had no immediate impact that I can see. The hotel bar opens out onto the street, and as we sit in front of the TV set, Cubans stroll by and stop to watch the screen. A mass is an unfamiliar event for most of them. Unless it is the pope himself, they have little sense of who is at the microphone (or up at bat, or on stage, as they would probably say, since a public gathering to them would suggest the national sport or a dance concert but not the liturgy). Meurice is unknown beyond Santiago. Cardinal Ortega is not recognized when he walks down the street …

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Filed under Cuba, nationalism, publishing, religion, U.S.

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