Three Popes in Havana and a Curious Anecdote

By Pilar Montes

Fidel Castro and JuanPablo II back in 1998 in Havana.  Photo:
Fidel Castro and JuanPablo II back in 1998 in Havana. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES — As the third occasion in which a Pope visits Cuba in 18 years draws near, I recall an incident during the visit of the Polish Pope, Wojtyla, the first made by the island.

It was January of 1998 in Havana and hurricane season was still months away, but there were still cold fronts and the rain and wind would hammer down on the island, arriving from as far north as the pole, at times.

It was the second half of the month and a new era of relations between the Catholic Church and Cuban State was starting with Pope John Paul II’s visit. The two were putting behind mutual misunderstandings and intolerance.

Cardinal John O’Connor, the archbishop of New York, who was accompanying John Paul II, was staying at the Melia Cohiba Hotel.

After the historical visit came to a close, as I approached some hotel employees to ask about the stay of those who accompanied the Pope, an operator from the hotel’s technical services department, Gaspar Rojas Martinez, told me of an unusual incident.

Gaspar told me a huge storm was raging and it was pouring. The big beach umbrellas outside were brought inside so they wouldn’t fly away in the strong gales. There was no one at the swimming pool.

“I was trying to adjust the taps in an auxiliary wash basin at the restaurant, while some of the restaurant employees were talking about a film with a nude scene with Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas,” Gaspar said.

“Nearby, a custodian who was about 60, suddenly darts off and, in full uniform (save the glasses, which he took off), dives right into the pool and swims towards the center,” he added. “The young men at the restaurant, surprised, yelled out, saying the “old man” was in danger, and they hurried to the edge of the pool carrying towels.”

Continuing the story, he told me: “We saw that the custodian was swimming towards an inexperienced bather at the deep end of the pool, who, quite clearly, was unaware of the depth of the water and ran the risk of drowning.”

The unfortunate soul, who made fairly skillful strokes, didn’t know how to remain afloat and decided to stop to catch his breath. Making a huge effort, the custodian managed to push him to the edge of the pool where the young waiters took him to a recliner.

Swimming pool at thee Melia Cohiba hotel.
Swimming pool at thee Melia Cohiba hotel.

Gaspar explained that “after he caught his breath, the rescued swimmer identified himself as a member of the delegation headed by Archbishop O’Connor. He made a sign of reverence; I think to thank us for his rescue.”

“What happened with the custodian?” I asked. “You’re asking about the old man. Well, just as he appeared on the scene, he vanished. No one really knows his name, because the old fellow was not a man of many words. He was a volunteer who worked with us during the time that hotels and restaurants around Havana became targets for terrorist actions, such as the one where explosives were placed at the Copacabana hotel, which killed the young Italian tourist Fabio di Celmo.”

Interested to know more about the rescued guest, I asked Gaspar to finish his story. “I recall he was medium height and more or less swarthy skin. When he left his room, I saw he had a prominent scar a little beneath the left shoulder plate.”

Despite its strangeness, this incident was consigned to oblivion, given the sheer importance of the Polish Pope’s visit. Later, Pope Benedict would follow in his footsteps.

Now, the new Latin American Pope will come to Cuba as part of a tour of the region. From July 5 to 12, Pope Francis will visit Ecuador. From there, he will head over to Bolivia and Paraguay. During a second your of the Western Hemisphere this year, he will visit three Cuban cities and other locations in the United States.

Pope Francis, whose efforts in favor of a constructive and respectful relationship between Cuba and the United States (as well as his defense of peace, the rights of the humble and an austere ecclesiastical life), has earned him the admiration of many honest men and women, believers and not.