Preparing for the Pope

Both sides have their own agenda as the pontiff visits Castro's beleaguered land

ANDREW PHILLIPS January 19 1998

Preparing for the Pope

Both sides have their own agenda as the pontiff visits Castro's beleaguered land

ANDREW PHILLIPS January 19 1998

Preparing for the Pope

Both sides have their own agenda as the pontiff visits Castro's beleaguered land



The Babalaos have spoken: it will be a rocky year in Cuba. In the wee hours of New Year’s Day, 400 priests of the Santería faith that is followed by millions of Cubans, mainly the black and the poor, gathered at a house in central Havana. They donned white robes, then chanted and prayed and tasted the blood of chickens and goats offered in sacrifice to their gods, the Orishas. Finally, they issued their Oddun, or prediction, for 1998. It will be a year, the Babalaos warned, marked by death, disease and disaster. Just as scary for a country accustomed to decades of domination by a single man, Fidel Castro, they foresaw signs of a crisis in the top leadership. “It’s terrifying— the worst we’ve seen in 40 years,” says Natalia Bolivar, a Havana anthropologist who both studies and practises Santería.

What the Babalaos say counts in Cuba—even Castro’s Communist government has been careful over the years to keep on their good side. This year, it has a special reason to pay heed, as the country prepares for one of the most remarkable events of its four decades of socialism. Pope John Paul II is coming to Cuba next week for a five-day visit that will be both a historic encounter between two of the world’s most charismatic figures, and a quiet test of strength between two faiths—Catholicism and Marxism.


The Pope and Castro are old men now, products of the great ideological struggles of the 20th century. John Paul, at 77, is clearly fading. Vatican-watchers believe he suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and his staff cancelled many of his public activities over Christmas to save his strength for the gruelling trip to Cuba, where he will celebrate open-air masses in four cities over four days—riding at times in a Popemobile brought to Havana in mid-December from Ottawa’s National Museum of Science and Technology. Castro, though thinner and slower than in the past, is by most accounts still robust at age 69— strong enough to deliver one of his marathon seven-hour speeches as recently as October. But after 39 years in power, and after defying countless predictions of his political demise, even he must have intimations of his own mortality.

Both sides, of course, have their own agendas. On the eve of the visit, as the scaffolding was being erected in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución for the Pope’s final mass there on the morning of Sunday, Jan. 25, they were being as publicly cautious as a pair of would-be lovers, fearful that any wrong word might spoil the mood. John Paul’s visit, church officials insist, is a purely pastoral event devoid of wider motives. The government, agrees a top official, simply wants a “calm” visit with “no political issues getting in the way.” But this will be the biggest event in Cuba not organized by the government since Castro took power in 1959—a major risk for a regime that remains supersensitive to any overt dissent. And, notes a Western diplomat in Havana, “nothing happens here that isn’t political.” Castro’s government clearly hopes the Pope’s presence will help to counter American efforts to isolate Cuba—especially if John Paul repeats the Vatican’s condemnation of the U.S. embargo that has crippled its economy. The Vatican, in turn, hopes the church will be strengthened enough to play a major role in reshaping the country once Castro finally fades from the scene.

That is the big picture. For those who kept the faith through decades of official repression, and the hundreds of thousands more who have filled Cuba’s churches since attitudes relaxed a few years ago, the coming of John Paul is more personal. A thousand or more packed Havana’s 220-year-old Baroque cathedral, gleaming after recent renovations, late on New Year’s Day for an elaborate 2'/2-hour high mass that turned into a joyous pep rally. They wore lapel buttons proclaiming “John Paul II—messenger of truth and hope,” and applauded as Jaime Cardinal Ortega reminded them that Christmas had just been celebrated as a public holiday in Cuba for the first time since Castro cancelled it in 1969. Then they joined hands above their heads and chanted the Pope’s name over and over. Gustavo Andujar, head of the Cuban office of a Catholic film institute, looked on in amazement and said: “Sometimes we ask ourselves where all this religious feeling was hiding. It’s very impressive, and very mysterious.”

The first thing Cubans say about the visit is that it will strengthen the church—or give it “more space,” in a phrase taken up by everyone from the Cardinal down to market pedlars. But the second thing they quickly add is: “Cuba is not Poland.” Castro’s government faces no significant organized opposition; ordinary people are afraid to voice any overt criticism. And Cuba’s Catholic Church does not have the kind of mass following that it has in much of Latin America—or in Poland, where it played a major role in toppling communism nine years ago with a powerful helping hand from the Polish Pope.

Part of that is due to simple repression. In 1959, Cuba had 700 priests and 5,000 nuns for 6.5 million people, as well as a network of Catholic schools and hospitals. By the mid-1960s, only 200 priests and a few hundred nuns were left, the schools and hospitals had been taken over by the government, Cuba was officially declared an atheist state, and believers were barred from membership in the Communist party—a prerequisite for any good job. By the ’70s, only a tiny minority of Cubans—a mere one per cent by the church’s own figures—attended mass at least twice a year.

Castro started easing up in the late 1980s. Some observers believe he wanted to widen his support; others say he realized that there were important points of contact between his socialist ideals and the church’s teachings on social justice. Himself a onetime altar boy who was educated by Jesuits, he declared that the revolution was not incompatible with Christian principles and said that religious people had been unfairly treated. In 1989, the Vatican was deep into negotiations with Havana for a papal visit—but the government aborted it because of the collapse of the Communist regimes in Europe. The moment was simply too sensitive.

In 1992, Cuba was declared no longer “atheist,” but simply “secular,” and religious believers were allowed to join the party. Quiet negotiations for a visit began once again, culminating in a 35-minute private « meeting between the Pope and Castro in Rome in November, 1996. The ^

Cuban leader emerged from the 3 session calling it “a miracle.” «

By then the country’s churches, 1 both Catholic and Protestant, were “ filling up. Rev. Ignacio Cruz, one of | five priests at Havana’s Church of § the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a magnif| icent but crumbling Gothic structure in the city’s historic centre, remembers when only a couple of dozen people would show up for mass. The church went into survival mode: “Our task was to stay faithful, to wait for Cubans to come back.”

These days, 400 or 500 crowd the pews on a typical Sunday, and the church has started a youth group for the teenagers and students who are flocking in. A family discussion group meets regularly and the dark old building with its vast stained-glass windows is finally being renovated. There is life again at Sacred Heart.

Change has not, however, come easily. There are still only 290 priests for a population that has swelled to 11 million. And even after Castro’s encounter with the Pope at the Vatican, it took months before the government followed through on a promise to allow the church to hold outdoor masses (it held 13 last fall). With only days to go before John Paul is to arrive in Havana on Jan. 21, church leaders were grumbling that Cardinal Ortega had still not been allowed to appear on state television to publicize the visit. Elections to Cuba’s national assembly were held on Sunday, Jan. 11, and until they were over, went the official line, the media would devote itself to ensuring a massive turnout—and giving Castro a resounding vote of confidence just before the Pope’s arrival. Anyone reading Granma, the country’s only daily paper, could be forgiven for asking: what visit? No matter that the election was a sham exercise from the beginning: exactly 601 candidates for 601 seats, chosen in a process orchestrated by the Communist party. (It is, in fact, impossible for a candidate to lose. There is space on the ballot only to vote Yes.

Any other vote or mark is considered invalid—and not included in the official total.)

And despite the upsurge in church attendance, Catholicism still draws the allegiance of only a minority of Cubans—perhaps 30 per cent by some estimates. Many are indifferent to religion after decades of socialist rule, while some follow the Protestant churches that have been aggressively recruiting in the past few years. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses are going door-to-door in Havana. And many others follow Santería, based on African tribal myths brought to Cuba by slaves, or mix worship of the African gods with devotion to Catholic saints in a uniquely Cuban blend of faith and mystery. By day, they pray before a figure of Santa Barbara; by night, they worship that same image as Changó, Santeria’s male god of war. In Cuba, it has been said, the gods change their sex at midnight.

Cuba is stumbling through a painful process of change

The Cuba that Pope John Paul will see is stumbling through a process of change that is, in the words of a Western diplomat in Havana, “gradual, painful and often incoherent.” Its trading partners

vanished in the early 1990s when communism collapsed in Europe. Its economy went into a tailspin, and was snatched back from the brink of disaster in 1993 only through measures that were once anathema to Castro’s socialist ideals: limited free enterprise, an opening to foreign investment (with Canadian companies leading the list by some measures), and allowing Cubans to possess foreign currency.

That effectively meant creating a parallel dollar economy alongside the failing one based on the nearlyworthless Cuban peso. But the medicine has not taken hold. Economic growth, after reaching seven per cent in 1996, fell to barely two per cent last year—and the outlook is no better for 1998. Tourism is now promoted as the chief motor of the economy. Some 1.7 million foreigners visited in 1997, including about 160,000 Canadians (the second-largest group after Italians). The government’s target is two million tourists annually by the year 2000.

The result is a hybrid system that stands as a mockery of the tired slogans that still fill billboards and empty walls across the country. “We believe in socialism!” they proclaim, or the favorite; “Ever onward until victory!” alongside a stylized portrait of the regime’s secular saint, the martyred guerrilla leader Che Guevara. The official line is that Cuba was reborn when Castro took power in 1959. Before that, goes the story, Cubans were forced to prostrate themselves before the power of the Yankee dollar; rich foreigners came to play while local people suffered; and, most shameful of all, Havana was known as the brothel of the Caribbean.

Two generations and a traumatic social revolution later, things have in many ways come full circle. Cubans who want anything above the bare necessities of life must have dollars; the government has made luring foreigners to the island a matter of highest economic importance; and Havana is once again quietly notorious as the sex capital of the region. Thousands of young women openly offer themselves for a few dollars. In a country where a professional earns the peso equivalent of just $20 or $25 a month at her day job, the women soliciting foreigners along the Malecón,

Havana’s sweeping seafront drive, include doctors, lawyers and engineers. A common sight in the city’s tourist areas is a middle-aged male from Italy, Spain or Canada with a stunning, spandex-clad Cuban girl on each arm and a slightly dazed look on his face. Americans are also getting in on the action. By one estimate,

87,000 visited Cuba last year despite their government’s economic embargo, which makes it impossible to travel directly to the island from the United States (most go via Canada or Mexico) and illegal for U.S. citizens to spend money there without special permission.

For several years, as tourism boomed and the dollar economy took hold, Cuban officials continued to maintain that prostitution was just a marginal phenomenon.

The government even pitched tourists with ads featuring scantily clad women and the slogan: “Come and be seduced.” So ingrained was Castro’s boast that the revolution had done away with the sex trade that officials were forced to deny the evidence of their own eyes. “We didn’t want to recognize that it existed,” says Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, who heads the North American department of Cuba’s foreign ministry.

Rev. Héctor Mendez, the pastor at Old Havana’s First Presbyterian Church, says prostitution is a part of a pattern of social problems emerging as Cuba makes its slow and uneasy transition. Mendez is a thin man with a careworn face—no surprise after laboring for 32 years in a country officially hostile to his beliefs. The furniture and computer in his spartan office were gifts from the United Church of Canada, used to run programs serving 1,000 people in a poor, mainly black part of the city.

Mendez makes no political judgments, but he ticks off a list of social woes that have become more and more acute in the past few years: “Crime, alcoholism, corruption, prostitution.” It is, he says, “very difficult for me to accept. I travelled abroad saying that in Cuba we did not have these problems. But they are really going up, and I feel sad about it.” All around Mendez’s church the old houses are falling apart and the roads are strewn with uncollected garbage; people haul buckets of water up several flights of stairs; power blackouts and fuel shortages are the stuff of every day. The unspoken irony is that while the government still scares Cubans by telling them that moving to a market economy will destroy the social benefits of the revolution, those benefits are crumbling before them.

Like Mendez, religious people of all denominations have learned to steer clear of politics.

Sometimes, though, it comes to them. The Pope will have a taste of that on Jan. 22, the second day of his Cuban tour. He is to go to Santa Clara, 260 km east of Havana, and celebrate a mass in the city’s baseball stadium. Just a dozen streets away, Maria Felicia Matas is waiting with a letter for him. It is from her daughter, Daula, 33, a human rights activist who has been on a hunger strike with six others since Oct. 9. On that day, police took her to the local prison for women on what her mother says was a trumped-up charge of threatening a doctor. Daula is now in the prison hospital and has lost 25 lb.; her mother says she is weak but determined to go on—at least until the Pope comes to town. Her letter asks John Paul to intervene, to persuade the authorities to release the local human rights supporters and stop harassing them. “We think the Pope is the only one who can mediate,” says Maria Matas. “He is our hope.”

The chances of that happening, of course, are approximately zero. Even local clergy have offered little but sympathetic words. “It’s out of their reach,” says Matas. But by Cuban standards, where overt protest is practically unheard-of, the hunger strike is a bold action. While Cuba’s much-vaunted new openness touches parts of the economy, there is nothing resembling free speech. Offences can seem trivial: a doctor in eastern Cuba has been detained for five months after speaking to a foreign journalist about the need for measures against dengue fever, a tropical disease that the government had said had been wiped out.

A few prominent dissidents are allowed to operate, and sometimes travel abroad. But they have no access to the media, they are kept under surveillance, and their lesser-known supporters are frequently harassed—or worse. Elizardo Sánchez, a genial man of 53, served a total of 8V2 years in prison for openly challenging the government and leads the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a group he cheerfully describes as “an outlaw organization.” At a table in the stately old Havana house that serves as his home and headquarters, he pulls out a list of 480 political prisoners his group has detailed information about. Another 300 or so, he says, are in custody, but less is known about them. The total is down from about 1,000 a year ago, he says.

Sánchez brings out another paper and unrolls it on the table. It is a hand-traced map of Cuba, with colored dots pasted on. Red ones show the location of about 40 high-security prisons; blue locates the 50 low-security jails; and about 200 green dots show so-called correctional work camps. Sánchez’s finger brushes the map where the Varadero peninsula juts north about 120 km east of Havana. Most Canadian tour packages take visitors to Varadero’s stunning beaches. Just south and west, Sánchez’s map shows five red dots and some 30 green ones. “I wonder,” he says diffidently, “if any Canadians know that so near those beaches are some of the worst prisons.” Cuban officials have no time at all for such quibbles. Even the younger generation of rising fortysomething bureaucrats, the so-called Yummies or Young Urban Marxists to whom many observers look for change, staunchly defend Castro’s unyielding line on dissent. Everything—from the rickety economy to the lack of basic political freedoms—is blamed on the unrelenting U.S. hostility. “I don’t think you can find another example,” says Carlos Fernandez, the foreign ministry official, “where such a powerful country has maintained such a blockade against such a small and poor country.” Fernandez compares it to Britain in the early 1940s—facing the might of Nazi Germany across the English Channel and fighting for its very survival: “If someone in England wanted to create a party that called for accommodation with Germany at that time, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been allowed. The United States pressures us to open up space for other political forces, but it just wants to undermine the government. So our government finds it necessary to defend itself by any means possible.” And anyway, insists Fernandez, there is no logical link between a multiparty system and human rights. End of discussion.

A hybrid economy depends on tourism

Even the Cuban government’s harshest critics have stopped predicting basic change anytime soon. The time frame for change, nearly all observers agree, is set by Castro’s health. As long as he remains in charge, the deadlock between Havana and Washington will remain, and his undoubted charisma will keep his government solidly in power. It has clearly calculated that the commander-inchief will be around for a number of years to come—and that it has time on its side to bring in reforms slowly and cautiously. The most that Pope John Paul, by that calculation, can do is to help Cuba’s church grow stronger so that, when the inevitable transition comes, there will be at least one national institution independent of the government and able to help smooth the way. In the meantime, the Babalaos’ prediction stands: it will be a turbulent year in Cuba. □