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A Visit to Havana

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January 23, 1998: The Pope is in Havana, and at the last moment I have flown to Cuba to see for myself what such an event might look like. Hundreds of other nonreligious foreigners like myself, I gather, have been drawn here by the same hungry curiosity: we wish to see Fidel at the open-air altar that has been set up in the Plaza de la Revolución, flanked by the images of Che and Jose Martí, kneeling as John Paul II celebrates Mass. The papal visit is expected to change many things, but much has already changed, and after fifteen years’ absence from Cuba, I find it difficult to adjust to the startling new reality already evident at the airport, busy with tourists and pilgrims even at this late hour. At the luggage belt a man in uniform offers his services as a porter. Customs agents do not bother to inspect my luggage, which I have kept carefully free of any literature that might be considered suspicious. Taxis with meters wait at curbside. They expect to be paid in dollars, whose possession was cause for severe punishment only five years ago.

In the comfortable, spare hotel room that comes with my budget papal tour package, I switch on the television to CNN and catch bits of the Pope’s homily during the morning’s Mass in Camagüey. His Spanish is fluent, but because of his speech difficulties, which are supposed to be a consequence of Parkinson’s disease, one has to pay close attention in order to understand the words. On this occasion he is discussing the tasks and problems of the young, and there is little that he has not said before. On another channel the Cuban evening news is broadcasting other fragments of the day’s events: Fidel Castro, in an elegant dark suit, is seen looking alternately at the Pope and at the floor of a beautiful portal in the National University. The Pope is shuffling painfully across the entryway, and Fidel Castro is taking tiny steps to match his pace. His hands are clasped as if in prayer, and the look in his eyes seems reverential. Later I will be told by someone whom I assume to be reliable that the emotion visible in the face of this militant atheist is avowedly genuine: How, Fidel has commented, could he have failed to be stirred by the presence in Cuba of this particular Pope, given that he spent years of his childhood and adolescence attending Mass and praying for the Holy Father every day at Catholic schools?

In the Cuban leader’s eyes, he has declared on other occasions, John Paul II is one of the most powerful men in the world because, unlike political world leaders, he does not have to make alliances with or offer concessions to anyone. One assumes that when he says this Fidel is wistfully including himself among the ranks of the uncomfortable concession-makers, and that it is when he compares the Pope’s freedom to his own long servitude to the geriatric leaders of the Soviet Union that his admiration increases. In addition, Fidel’s most sincere respect is probably reserved for those who demonstrate physical courage, and this is a virtue of which the Pope gives evidence with every crippled step. And more—my informant says that a great friend of Fidel’s has quoted him as saying, more or less, the following: The Pope is an unpretentious man who receives one in private, without interpreters or aides, and listens courteously, unlike so many heads of some dipshit states (paisitos de mierda) who come here and feel they can give themselves all sorts of airs.

It can be argued that Fidel owes his life to the Church, or, more specifically, to Archbishop Enrique Pérez Serantes of the city of Santiago: in 1953, when dictator Fulgencio Batista’s troops were hunting down, torturing, and killing participants in Fidel’s disastrous attack on the Moncada barracks, the bishop led a campaign to protect the lives and physical integrity of the captured rebels. Fidel himself had fled with two others into the Sierra Maestra hills following the failed assault. To his eternal chagrin, an army search party found the exhausted three while they were sound asleep. They were not shot on the spot because the commanding officer turned out to be a man of uncommon scruple who shouted to his men as they were preparing to fire, “You don’t kill ideas!” At around that same hour, a group of five other freshly captured rebels further down the road to Santiago were about to be executed by a different group of soldiers, but just as the firing squad was taking aim, they were spotted by Monsignor Pérez Serantes, who had been driving up and down the country road searching for the rebels and calling out to them.

The priest gathered up his skirts and ran toward the prisoners, yelling “Don’t kill them!” to the soldiers. A short while later, Fidel and his two captured comrades appeared on the same road, bound for Santiago, where their captor would have to turn the three over to a notoriously bloodthirsty superior. Although the bishop demanded that the prisoners be surrendered to him instead, for safekeeping (Fidel, for the record, protested that he was surrendering to no one), they were nevertheless delivered to the butchers at the Moncada army barracks. Yet the fact that their arrest had been witnessed by the archbishop must certainly have contributed to Castro’s later safety in prison.

The episode is narrated in detail in Tad Szulc’s Fidel: A Critical Portrait,1 but when Frei Betto, a Brazilian Dominican friar who is a great admirer of the Cuban Revolution, asked him about it in 1985, in the course of a series of interviews, Fidel determinedly avoided discussing the archbishop’s role in protecting the rights of the Moncada prisoners. Among those who know him, Fidel has a reputation for generosity when it comes to recognizing political debts and favors—but he is also someone who rewrites history at his convenience, and when Frei Betto asked him about the archbishop Fidel was much more interested in demonstrating that it was the hopelessly reactionary character of the Catholic Church in Cuba that forced him to formulate his repressive policies against it. A brave, if conservative, priest who acted in accordance with his humanitarian beliefs did not fit the discourse of the moment.

The interviews with the Brazilian friar were collected under the title Fidel Castro y la religión: Conversaciones con Frei Betto and published simultaneously in book form in Mexico and Cuba by Siglo XXI Editores in 1986, and their clear intention is to show the Cuban leader at his nondogmatic best—a delicate task. Nevertheless, Conversations is an enlightening and even engaging book on many counts: Frei Betto, a cheery and seemingly guileless man, feels passionately about food, and as a result we learn not only that Fidel is also a cook, but that he is the kind of cook who argues about whether the mixture of ground vegetables and meat used to clarify beef stock (the “raft”) should include an egg white mixed with its shell or without it. We learn that in his private office, Fidel has a large portrait of his comrade and revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegos, done in pastel colors (but not one of Che). We learn that the private, informal Fidel cannot help expressing almost everything, including emotions, in terms of numbers and fractions and percentages, just as he does in his speeches. (And in his private correspondence: Szulc quotes from the letters he wrote while in solitary confinement following the Moncada assault. “I have now spent three thousand hours completely alone,…” he records, and, to another friend, “I am convinced one could make happy all [of Cuba’s] inhabitants. I would be disposed to bring upon myself the hatred and ill-will of a thousand or two men, among them some relatives, half of my friends, two thirds of my colleagues, and four fifths of my former college companions!…”

Mostly, we see how Fidel, among whose emblematic slogans is “Turn Defeat into Victory!”, is also skilled at making a virtue of necessity. The conversations with Frei Betto are, it would appear, intended for many kinds of readers, but addressed to one in particular, John Paul II. When Karol Wojtyla assumed the throne of Saint Peter his views on communism were known within the socialist world, but so were his distaste for modern capitalism, and his view that the United States’ blockade of Cuba was wrong. Fidel appears to have made some inquiries among his Eastern European contacts about just who this new pope was, and within months of John Paul’s election, in February of 1979, he invited him to use Cuba as a refueling point on his return from a visit to Mexico.

The Cuban Church was also eager for a visit that would strengthen its hand against the government. In 1989, the collapse of socialism interfered with a visit whose date had already been set, and subsequently a harsh criticism of the regime by the Cuban bishops chilled relations again for another few years. Yet the fact remained that only the Pope could publicly embarrass the Miami-based organizations of Cuban exiles who, together with Jesse Helms, are the blockade’s only significant lobbyists. Despite the Pope’s skillful maneuvering to replace the left-wing hierarchy in the Latin American Catholic Church with bishops and cardinals who shared his own conservative views; despite the disastrous encounter between the Pope and Fidel’s Sandinista allies in Nicaragua in 1981; despite the Pope’s role in bringing down the Communist regime in Poland; and despite the fact that until 1991 Catholics were openly mocked, kept out of the ruling party, and denied the smallest privileges the regime had within its power to offer, Fidel held true to his initial insight that the most powerful weapon against the thirty-year blockade of his country would be a visit to Cuba by the Pope.

When the Pope rebuffed his initial improvised invitation in 1979, Fidel sulked for a bit, but by 1985 he was campaigning for a visit again, through diplomatic channels as well as indirect ones, like the published interviews with Frei Betto. In these interviews he also appears to be convincing himself, almost before our eyes, that John Paul II and he are, au fond, compatible. In subsequent interviews and speeches Fidel would represent Karol Wojtyla as an enlightened Polish patriot, a courageous fighter, a great athlete, a man of deep faith, and a world leader whose social concerns are virtually identical to those of the Cuban Revolution, much as the successive bureaucratic leaders of the Soviet Union that Castro had to deal with always appeared as selfless and loyal revolutionaries. Here, with Frei Betto, Fidel is just feeling his way:

In these days I am trying to gather material. I’ve not only got already almost all the books by [revolutionary theologians Leonardo] Boff and [Gustavo] Gutiérrez, but with great interest I’ve also asked for and obtained copies of all the Pope’s speeches in his last tour through Latin America…. I’m convinced that in these visits the Pope must have understood the difference that exists between the abundance of material goods and extravagant spending that can be observed in wealthy and developed Europe…but also the dreadful poverty, the massive misery that…he found in Latin America’s cities and fields…. And I confess to you, the Pope’s concerns regarding this topic pleased me.

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    Morrow, 1986, p. 278.

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