Soul-searching in cuba

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 2 1998

Soul-searching in cuba

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 2 1998

Soul-searching in cuba


The Pope boosts the church—and Castro





There were many reasons why Cubans turned out last week to welcome Pope John Paul II to their homeland—and not all of them were obvious. Many, to be sure, came to celebrate a Roman Catholic faith suppressed for four decades. Others were simply curious, drawn to Cuba’s biggest public spectacle in years. But for two young men casting a skeptical eye on the Pope as he said mass before 50,000 people gathered on a dusty soccer field in the provincial city of Santa Clara, being there was just another expression of MarxismLeninism. Juan Manuel Ferrer and his friend Oscar Gerada, both activists in the local Young Communist League, both wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the bearded image of guerrilla martyr Che Guevara, turned out in response to President Fidel Castro’s call to give John Paul a rousing reception. The church and the party, Ferrer said without sounding very convinced, have much in common: both preach moral values. And anyway, he added, nodding towards the 50,000 people listening to the Pope, “the revolution is flexible—flexible enough to include this.”

That, at least, was what Castro was clearly hoping as he hosted the Pope with the careful attentiveness that a dutiful son might pay to an aging parent. The two men are actually close in age— John Paul is 77, Castro 71—but the Pope’s frailty was on full display as the Cuban leader hovered around him, gently guiding him by the arm and basking in the legitimacy granted by the presence of the world’s pre-eminent moral leader. Castro had more reason to smile: even while flying into Havana from Rome the Pope condemned the U.S. economic embargo that has helped cripple Cuba’s economy. Asked what his message to the Americans would be regarding the embargo, he replied: ‘To change, to change.” And later, at an outdoor mass in the central city of Camagtiey, he denounced “the effects of economic embargoes, which are always deplorable because they hurt the most needy.”

Score one for Castro, whose government blames everything from food shortages to its denial of basic political freedoms on the relentless hostility from the superpower 145 km away across the Straits of Florida. No matter that what he calls the “blockade” may be one of Castro’s biggest advantages in maintaining power. By giving him a foreign target to blame, goes the reasoning, he can both appeal to Cubans’ deep sense of nationalism and divert attention from the shortcomings of his country’s crumbling socialist economy. John Paul’s trenchant criticism of Washington’s 36year-old economic boycott went far towards explaining why Cuba’s state-run media urged “believers and non-believers” alike to turn out. Government employees were given time off to line the streets of Havana when the Pope arrived, and schools closed for the afternoon. Granma, the Communist party daily, gave John Paul the kind of banner headlines normally reserved for Fidel himself. Cheering the Pope, went the unmistakable message, was the most revolutionary thing a Cuban could do, and John Paul was less a fierce opponent of communism than an ally against imperialism.

For the Catholic Church, the benefits came even before the Pope’s plane touched down. Long pushed to the margins of Cuban society, it was able to use the five-day visit to fill the churches, win permission to hold outdoor masses, and gain unprecedented access to the media. Caritas, the Catholic charity, expanded its role as Cuba’s biggest source of private aid—vital in a country whose muchvaunted social services are under severe strain. The Cuban church is still far weaker than others in Latin America, with only about 30 per cent of the population baptized. But the church’s growing role and confidence is a major step towards rebuilding a civil society outside the party-state machinery that has dominated all life since Castro’s revolution in 1959. “What looks like a small step here,” observes a Western diplomat in Havana, “can be really significant.”

Just ask Sister Marguerite Marie Hébert, who has followed the Cuban church through good times and bad. Now 75, a tiny woman with bright eyes, she came to Cuba from Quebec City almost 48 years ago. It was the spring of 1950, when Castro was more preoccupied with trying out for an American baseball team than making revolution. Sister Marguerite taught in Catholic schools in impoverished rural villages until 1961, when Cuba’s revolution was declared Marxist and the schools were taken over by the government. Most foreign priests and nuns left, but she and six other sisters from the Servants of the Holy Heart of Mary order in Quebec decided to stay on: “The people told us, ‘Don’t leave us alone. We’ll help you to live.’ So we did.”

The number of priests dropped from 700 to barely 200 by the mid-1960s, so nuns like Sister Marguerite found themselves taking their place. By the early ’90s, when Castro eased up on religion, she began working for Caritas, distributing milk, clothing and medicine to the poor as the economy fell apart. She works out of La Caridad, a church in a poor neighborhood of Old Havana, and has seen the situation for ordinary people deteriorate since Cuba’s aid from the Soviet Union ended in 1991 and it was exposed to the full brunt of the American embargo. “There’s a lack of food, medicine, milk—everything,” she said last week. ‘Things are falling apart.” The embargo, £ she adds with a flash of anger, is “inhumane. § A government doesn’t fall because you g make the people suffer.”

“ Now, after almost half a century in Cuba, I Sister Marguerite is the only one of her 8 group from Quebec left, and she has seen the wheel come full circle. “It’s an honor again to be a Catholic,” she said. “I’ve waited a long time.” On Sunday, at the Pope’s final mass in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, Sister Marguerite was one of 50 people chosen to receive communion from the hands of John Paul himself. “It’s a real joy,” she said. “Almost beyond belief.”

The Pope’s words against the embargo did have some echo in Washington—though not in Congress and the White House, where it counts. USA Engage, a coalition of 650 American business groups and trade associations, including blue-chip organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, along with dozens of human-rights and religious groups, called on the U.S. government to drop its economic boycott against Havana. And the House of Representatives is debating a bill that would make it easier to ship food and medicine from the United States to Cuba. “This is a landmark event,” said Representative Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who opposes the embargo, of John Paul’s visit to Cuba. “It’s got an awful lot of people thinking. The Pope’s approach is the exact opposite of the American government. The contrast is apparent.”

Castro singled out the U.S. boycott for stinging criticism in his speech welcoming the Pope to Havana, at one point calling it “genocide.” But removing it, of course, would open the floodgates to American investment, visitors and consumer goods. And that might do more to undermine the socialist

system than any amount of hostile rhetoric. “I’m not sure the Cuban leadership has thought through what effects the ending of the embargo would have,” says Barry Barlow, an expert on Latin American politics at the University of Regina who visited Cuba in December. “For them, the lifting of the embargo seems so remote, so unlikely, that it’s not something they have to confront.” Washington seems determined not to alter those expectations. After more than three decades, attitudes on both sides are fixed in concrete. U.S. officials maintain that it is still up to Castro to make the first move by reforming his system, and leaders of the powerful Cuban-American community show few signs of easing their implacable hostility to him.

The Pope’s criticism of Washington may have pleased Castro, but he also had to hear John Paul list what he considers the failings of Cuban society—including widespread abortion that ends 30 to 40 per cent of all pregnancies, and a divorce rate of about 50 per cent. The Pope also urged greater freedom for Cubans. At one point, he reminded Castro that the Cuban national hero, Father Felix Varela, was an advocate of democracy, “judging it to be the political project best in keeping with human nature.” He repeatedly urged the government to allow Catholic schools so that parents would have a choice in education; currently there are only state schools, which do not teach religion. And when John Paul went calling on Castro and the top Cuban leadership at Havana’s Palace of the Revolution, he made an appeal on behalf of some of the estimated 700 political prisoners held in Cuba. Cuban officials, who do not even acknowledge that human rights is an issue in their country, received the appeal “with great attention,” the Pope’s spokesman said later.

Although he joked about it, his frailty was painfully apparent

John Paul may still have great moral strength as the leader of 950 million Catholics, but his physical weakness was painfully apparent. When he arrived in Havana, he did not bend to kiss the ground as he has done when starting visits to the other 114 countries he has travelled to since he became Pope on Oct. 16,1978. Instead, four children presented him with a tray of Cuban earth to kiss. He was able to walk only slowly and stiffly, and his left arm often shook uncontrollably—a symptom of what Vatican officials have acknowledged is a form of Parkinson’s disease. Many of his activities over Christmas and New Year’s were cancelled to save his strength for the Cuban visit, one which church officials say he was determined to make before his condition deteriorates further. As recently as Jan. 11, he swayed and seemed about to faint at the start of a mass in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. But, said Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, John Paul gave no thought to postponing the visit: “He told me, ‘I’ll come to Cuba even in a wheelchair.’ ”

Despite the revival of faith, Cuba is still a highly secular society

The Pope himself joked about his frailty, asking for the faithful to pray for his visit to Cuba—“and also for my return.” But for a church so identified with one man, it is hardly a laughing matter. John Paul, who became Pope at the relatively young age of 58, and who had a passion for skiing and hiking through mountains, has visibly declined over the past year.

Aside from the Parkinson’s disease that causes his arm to shake and his speech often to slur, his litany of health problems has included the terrorist’s bullet that struck him in St. Peter’s Square in 1981; a benign tumor in his intestine that was removed in 1992; a fractured right shoulder in 1993; a broken right hip in 1994 from a fall in his bathroom; and an operation to remove his appendix in 1996.

Still, there is no indication that his mental abilities have suffered.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte of Montreal, in Cuba last week to represent Canadian Catholics, spent five weeks in Rome in November and December for meetings of bishops and cardinals, and saw John Paul almost every day.

“The Pope is not a healthy young boy, that is clear,” Turcotte told Maclean’s. “He’s an old man now.

But his mental condition is very good.” What the public sees, he added, is misleading: “The Pope does have trouble walking and climbing stairs, and that is the image that many people have of him.

But I can tell you, I had many opportunities to speak to him, and it’s not the true picture. He is still very strong, in good shape for a man of his age.”

Church leaders, of course, can be expected to issue such reassurances. The Vatican’s rules do not make it clear how to deal with a pope who becomes physically or mentally unable to carry out his role. And, say Vatican observers, John Paul is determined to usher the church into its third millennium in just under two years. Whenever he must be replaced, he will have an enormous influence on the choice of his successor, since he has chosen 86 per cent of the 123 cardinals in line to vote.

Last week, however, John Paul’s weakness seemed to limit the impact of his public appearances. Several hundred thousand people lined the streets of Havana to wave on his motorcade, but the crowds were muted in smaller centres. In both Santa Clara and Camagiiey, to be sure, there were many devout Catholics like Hildelia

Castellanos, a 58-year-old woman who boarded a bus at 2 a.m. with other members of her church to make it to the mass on time. She stood for hours in the sun waving tiny Cuban and papal flags. “Faith never goes away,” she said.

But the crowds that turned out to see John Paul were undeniably modest by the standards of papal tours—about 50,000 at his first mass and perhaps 30,000 at the second. (By comparison, last October he drew 1.5 million people to a mass in Brazil, a country with a much stronger Catholic tradition.) Even during his homily, many

people wandered away or talked among themselves. Cuba, it was clear, may be experiencing a revival of faith—but it is still one of the most secular societies in the Americas. And the Pope’s lectures against abortion and divorce, not to mention his stern moral message that “blindly following the impulse of our emotions often means becoming a slave to our passions,” hardly fits easily with a society where sex—usually without the benefit of marriage—is often seen as one of the main recreational activities.

Nor did people seem intent on taking advantage of the gatherings and the presence of the world’s media to speak out against Castro and his government. For at least the first three days, none of Cuba’s few dissident groups made their opposition publicly known. Cubans may grumble privately about economic hardship and—sometimes— about the lack of political freedom. But whether from fear, lack of interest or even respect for the Pope, no one went public. In Santa Clara, where a group of dissidents have been conducting a hunger strike since October, none of their supporters used the Pope’s mass there as an opportunity for publicity. “The visit isn’t political,” explained Rámon Martinez, a member of the supporters’ group. “And anyway, the church has just been sitting on the fence. They know the situation, but they don’t do anything.”

Almost no one, however, expected John Paul’s Cuban pilgrimage to produce sudden change in a country where Castro still thunders

that “Cuba will not change____

Even death will not defeat us.” It is a matter of small steps— like the one taken at La Caridad Church in Havana the evening before the Pope arrived. Eduardo Boza Masvidal, who once was headquartered in the church as Bishop of Havana, had come back to celebrate a mass there. Now a frail old man of 82, he was forced to leave Cuba in 1961 when relations between the church and Castro’s government went into a deep freeze. Many top clerics sided with the old regime of dictator Fulgencio Batista against the guerrillas from the countryside, and tensions were running high. Four thousand people showed up at the church one day, angry that the government had cancelled a religious procession, and marched on the presidential palace. Boza was arrested, charged with starting an antiCastro riot, and then put on a ship with other priests headed for Miami.

When he was able to say mass again last week at La Caridad, both he and many of the 1,000 people who packed the old church had tears in their eyes. “You have no idea how happy I am,” he said, his faint voice barely audible. “Since the day I left, I haven’t stopped thinking and praying for Cuba.” Boza, now the auxiliary bishop of Venezuela, was looking forward to a time when the divisions that kept him away for decades would be healed. “As Christians,” he said, “we must forgive and see the hand of God in everything.” Even, perhaps, in an unlikely encounter between two old men trying in their own ways to avoid dragging the ideological wars of the 20th century into the next.