The Pope Still in Cuba News

Vincent Morin Aguado

Fidel Castro meets with Pope Benedict in Havana in March 2012. Photo: Vatican Pool

HAVANA TIMES — There are some news reports that stand out to us to the degree of what’s hidden behind an event.

This is the case with the letter Pope Benedict XVI sent to President Raul Castro, which was recently published in the Cuban press. In it, in addition to again expressing his thanks for the welcome he received here, the Pope wrote:

“I wish thank you for the exquisite hospitality extended to me during the unforgettable days spent in your country with a unique remembrance in prayer, beseeching the Almighty to continue to move Cuba forward with determination along the paths of freedom, solidarity and harmony for the common good and the honest progress of all its sons and daughters.” —    Benedict XVI at the Vatican, May 3, 2012

So what’s behind this?

I’ll try to explain in this report from the “Capital of all Cubans” (an often repeated and a no less controversial phrase, though the topic for another article).

Word on the street has it that some of the opponents of the current Cuban political system are “asking for the head” of Cardinal Ortega for having accepted — prior to the Pope’s visit — the police intervening to vacate several people who had occupied a church in Havana in an attempt to turn it into a place of political asylum.

A campaign is in the making requesting signatures against “His Eminence,” the highest among the bishops of Cuba, condemning him for colluding with the authorities of the country in this case of evidently illegal occupants of the temple.

President Raul Castro and Cardenal Jaime Ortega.

Where would we be if churches were converted into embassies with the right to grant asylum? Certain people, or groups associated with them, can express their desires, but there’s something called common sense.

This is why I set out to listen to the views of Cubans following the visit of Benedict XVI before giving a final opinion with regard to the current controversy.

The general picture, as Joseph Ratzinger himself could appreciate it, is as accurate as the recent words by the chief of state of the Vatican:

“With the joy of having carried out my Apostolic visit to Cuba to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery and presence in that nation of the venerated image of Nuestra señora de la Caridad del Cobre, I am pleased to express to Your Excellency, and to the all of the other authorities of the nation, my deep gratitude for the painstaking attention given to me during my memorable stay in your noble land…”

His Holiness addressed the Cuban president, but the Cuba seen by of the successor to John Paul II is a country very different from the one visited by that beatified pope fourteen years before.

Back then we used to hear: “Peanuts, the peanut vendor is here. Don’t not lie down and sleep, little lady, without eating a paper cone of fresh peanuts.”

Now there are other street criers, in tune with the times in the world and the new reality in Cuba. Now we hear: “Buy gold, any bit of gooold! Weighed on the spot and bought for a good price.”

One joking Cuban repeated this cry during the Pope’s Mass in Havana. Under orders, he later apologized saying: “It’s was just that this is a new job for me. I’m a jeweler now, so I got excited seeing all the glitter!”

True or not, the man’s explanation was just enough to win him the benefit of the doubt, a feat also accomplished by the great Galileo when he said “And yet it moves,” though we really don’t know whether this was just his babbling to himself as he faced the Inquisition and the threat of it instruments of torture.

If you don’t insist on them identifying themselves, people will express themselves freely – like Caridad, who was waiting to receive her retirement check at the end of the month. As she said:

“The Pope is a wise man, highly respected. You had to hear him, how he spoke Spanish so that everybody could understand him crystal clear, without a translator. He spoke the truth of the Church, about the fellowship between all Cubans.”

Bars and barbershops are places where you can always find a range of opinions. So I went to Henry, who has “fixed heads” for three decades in Centro Havana:

“As my neighbors know, I’m here cuttin’ heads because it was the trade I learned from my father and my brother. In ’68 they nationalized my father’s barbershop, and we became government employees with a salary.

“It seemed acceptable at the time, because the money was pretty much enough to live on and the business already had the supplies and equipment. But later the disadvantages started mounting because we started running out of one thing after the other – scissors, descent clippers…even talcum powder!”

“So, you’re better off now?,” I asked.

“We’ll see. So far things are almost the same as before, except everything’s a little more legal. We’re a cooperative. We decide on the rates, which is better, and we manage ourselves. Still though, we have to pay taxes, wages and keep all the accounts. We’ll just have to see how it goes!”
Barbershop is “taking the temperature.” Some people are waiting for a haircut while others are just killing time. A man “mete la cuchareta” (“gave his two cents”) saying:

“We welcomed the Pope with dignity and respect as the head of state of the Catholic Church. We showed him that we’re a cultured people, standing firm against imperialism…”

At that point came the winks and gestures indicating not to pay any attention to him…this guy’s nuts, and so on. In any case, his opinion is one of many similar ones, of those who — believers or not — applauded the Pope as part of the crowd.

Havana Barbershop. Photo: Caridad

On the way home I saw one woman — like any other — talking about what was on hand and what was needed for making dinner. In the park closest by, I went up and said hi to Michael, a print shop worker, whose union used to be one of the best organized in our country:

“Here you see me, waiting on a horse-drawn wagon,” he said.

“What do you mean a wagon, Migue? What’s that about?” I asked.

“Brother, one of those that’s going to carry each and every one of us, because in the end we’re all going to wind up in the same place,” he replied.

All I could say was: “Don’t talk like man. Look, even the Pope came to visit us.”

He smiled without actually laughing, adding: “The Pope? Well, if he can do miracles, then get him to lower the price of food, because that’s the hellfire that’s burning my here.”

We’re reaching our limits. These are anxious and desperate people, but it’s good to remind them about the central idea of a press conference given by Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega ten years ago precisely in the homeland of the present Pope, that was when he said that the Catholic Church in Cuba cannot be the political party of the opposition, which up to now is non-existent in the country.