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.

Later in the conversation he adds, “It must be acknowledged that the Pope is a remarkable politician.” Twelve years after the interviews with Frei Betto, Fidel has managed at last to establish conditions and offer guarantees sufficient to persuade Pope John Paul II, a sick and possibly dying man, and a very remarkable politician indeed, that a trip to Cuba will satisfy both sides’ aspirations. There is a difference, though, between the two: the Church has made no concessions in order to visit Cuba. John Paul has not softened his stand on any issue—from abortion, so widely practiced in Cuba, to the demand that open-air Masses be permitted and broadcast live—in order to make the visit possible. And for him, it is a risk-free excursion. No one within the Vatican or among the faithful will condemn him for traveling to a Communist state—look what a similar trip produced in Poland!

Fidel Castro, who is also rumored to be very ill, has made many concessions. Following up on the offer he dangled before Frei Betto, the Cuban Communist Party modified its statutes in 1991 to admit confessed Catholics. Harassment of all religions has ceased (although this is not to be confused with freedom; Catholics are still not allowed to teach schoolchildren, for example). And the Pope’s Masses are indeed being broadcast live. Fidel has everything to lose: his own faithful, who learned their atheism at his knee, may well feel betrayed and disaffected. As for Catholics in Cuba, who knows their number, or what they are capable of, or what sympathies they may inspire once they are allowed in the open?


January 24: At sunrise, I awake wondering what the man from the strip-mined flatlands of Poland might make of the sparkling din in the air: thousands of different bird calls—whoops and whistles and twitters and cheeps—come from the mango trees and almendros that surround the hotel as well as the Nuncio’s residence not far away, where the Pope is staying. Havana is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with an exhalation of ferns and flowers twisting their way around the crumbling pastel columns of porticos that shelter even modest houses from the sun, their charm made only more poignant by the fact that they look as if they could be brought down by blowing hard on them. The mango trees are in full, lush bloom, the air is cool, and a dense mist hides the ocean from view. The Pope is acutely sensitive to physical beauty: during his visit to the Dominican Republic years ago I watched him, still in his physical prime and brimming with the excitement of being who he was at that particular moment, coo with delight as he was shown around Santo Domingo’s glorious sixteenth-century cathedral.

His five-day experience of Havana is to be limited both by his physical frailty and by his itinerary: every morning he is whisked to the airport and to a different provincial city, and every afternoon he is whisked back in time for a meal, rest, and then a meeting that begins after dark. Nevertheless, from the back of the compact version of the Popemobile he is using here he can see Cubans pedaling or walking to work or standing in line for a bus when he rides out to the airport in the early morning. He will see that they are carefully combed and neatly dressed in simple outfits of tacky synthetic stuff, or in cotton T-shirts and shorts, all impeccably ironed and worn with something ornamental—even if only a necklace of plastic beads or a few rings made of tin alloy or bands of copper, or a scrap of hemmed material folded and tucked into a shirt pocket. He will see that they are orderly, cheerful, happy to see the Pope, and wherever he goes they will wave and call out a greeting to him.

It is too bad that he will not get close enough to know that they are freshly bathed, if only with a bucketful of water, and that if they have soap they will smell of it, and that if they don’t they will have perfumed themselves with a little agua de violetas or with a few drops of lemon juice dabbed on their hair. The Pope, like sightless people or the deaf, will have learned by now to use other senses to determine the character and mood of the people he travels among, and although it might seem that huge outdoor events offer little chance for knowledge, his most intense communication with those people evidently takes place in the course of the daily outdoor Masses. The uninhibited good nature with which Cubans at Mass banter with the Pope and improvise little conga refrains for him (they do the same thing with the characters on the screen in movie houses) has already amused him in his first two Masses in Santa Clara and Camagüey.

Today I am meeting relatives of a Cuban I knew in Mexico, to take a walk around Old Havana and watch the day’s Mass on television in a coffee shop or bar. During my last visit, which took place at the height of Cuba’s Soviet-sponsored prosperity, in 1983, it was possible to walk for miles with-out finding a place to buy anything to eat or drink, and one was reduced to knocking on a door and asking for a drink of water when desperate. But now there are little coffee and pizza stands everywhere in Havana, and the occasional peddlers with pushcarts offer everything from lemon ices to fresh hot rolls as they wander among the city’s collapsing mansions and devastated apartment buildings. We aim to be fancier today, though, and splurge at one of the new dollars-only hotels.

In the Cathedral Plaza of Old Havana my friend’s parents and I stand and stare. They live and work in Havana but have not been here in a couple of years—they have been too busy, they say—and we are all having a hard time taking in the changes. The plaza is and always has been small—in memory, about the size of a large stage set—intimate, unpretentious, delicate in its proportion and execution, the coral limestone used for the construction of its enclosing palaces giving the whole a lacy, tropical flourish. In the ruinous state in which I last saw this space (the Revolution did not then attach much importance to the monuments of colonialism) it was heartstopping—a symbol both of the Cuba that had been denied and of the Cuba that existed, and of the power of beauty to endure. In 1982 Unesco declared Old Havana a World Heritage Site, and began restoration, which continues today under the supervision of the Cuban government.

The government now attaches great importance to the monuments of the colonial era because, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its subsidy of the Cuban economy, tourism has become the primary source of foreign currency, overtaking sugar by a long stretch. Refurbished, polished, cleaned, and freshly painted, the Cathedral Plaza is now so pretty it sets the teeth slightly on edge. Droves of tourists—Italian and Mexican and Canadian and German—march through the plaza and are ushered by their tour guides into an artesanias store, where local crafts of truly startling ugliness are displayed on painted wood pedestals.

At a table in a restaurant set behind the lovely columns of the former Palacio de los Marqueses de Aguas Claras, a trio is offering to sing for a group of Germans. It is early in the morning for this kind of thing, but the Germans look as if they may have been here since the night before. And the young musicians look like the kind of skilled, highly disciplined professionals a national network of music schools still churns out by the hundreds, and for whom a stint as strolling serenaders in a tourist trap is now a prime job opportunity. Here and there, other hopefuls shake maracas and wave straw hats at the foreigners as they stroll through this elaborate stage set. Cubans still live in Old Havana, of course—a short walk reveals the chaotic, steamy, impoverished dwellings shown in the film Strawberry and Chocolate—but the whole point of the plaza is to pretend that they don’t.

As my new friends and I stroll past a shiny Benetton boutique and chic bars and restaurants and even a chic thread and button store on a corner, I can see them avert their eyes from the numerous prostitutes working the cobbled streets, resplendent in their lycra bodysuits or minimal shorts and halter tops. My friends, I soon realize, believe deeply in the Revolution, and during the hours we are to spend together they will always interpret the disasters everywhere in view in as favorable a light as possible. Prostitution is not such a large problem, they say. In much the same way that revolutionaries used to deny that the gusanos—the Cuban exile community—were a significant issue, they add that only some young girls “with no principles” are creating a bad image for everyone else. “For example, in our families there isn’t a single prostitute,” the wife says. We enter an enchanting bakery, painted lime-yellow and blue and cooled by ceiling fans, and stare at the baked goods on display. My friends have insisted that the treats for sale in Old Havana aren’t just for tourists but for Cubans as well. “See?” they say, pointing to a Cuban family at the counter, quietly buying a few sweet rolls.

But they themselves are buying nothing, although the bread seems cheap: twenty US cents for a dinner roll. We work the price out in pesos: at twenty-three to the dollar, a roll costs 4.60 pesos. Each of my friends, it turns out, holds a middle-level managerial position in a state enterprise, and each earns 275 pesos a month. “That is why everyone is in la lucha“—in the struggle, or the hustle—they admit at last. “There are plenty of things to buy now, but you have to pay for them in dollars, and Cuban salaries are paid in pesos.” Since for the moment they have not found a way to join la lucha, they cannot afford to buy bread.

The issue of Granma I acquire from a vendor in front of the cathedral is eight pages thick, tabloid-size. There is such a severe paper shortage in Havana these days that toilet paper is nonexistent, and, for lack of anything to buy in bookstores or anything to buy books with, better-off Cubans, having already sold or bartered their best furniture, their cutlery, their paintings, their picture frames, the statues on their family crypt, their jewelry, and their garden ornaments, have now taken to delivering the contents of their bookshelves to the used-books dealers who operate stalls in front of the former Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. The toilet paper problem and the Granma problem are not unrelated; in poor countries, squares of newsprint are a common substitute for toilet paper, but in Cuba the skinny—and scarce—issues of Granma are not enough to fill the need, and so I wonder if the stacks of Marxist literature that are said to go for a song these days are being put to good use—I dare not ask my friends. In any event, the coverage of the papal visit in the current issue of Granma makes interesting reading, for beyond the live broadcasts, it is the only information about the visit that most Cubans have access to.

In today’s Granma, for example, they learn that the world media “classifies the meeting between Fidel and Pope John Paul II as ‘historic,”‘ that a congressman in El Salvador “classified the visit as transcendental,” and that the Jamaican daily The Observer “writes that the visit…is an example of rejection toward the US embargo policies.” The front page describes at length yesterday’s meeting between the Pope and representatives of Cuban culture—among them, movie directors whose works have been censored and intellectuals who have learned to keep their opinions about Fidel Castro closely to themselves. Without quoting him directly (or any other Church hierarch by name), Granma tells us that the Pope “underlined that in Cuba one can speak of a fertile cultural dialogue, which is the guarantee for more harmonic growth and an increase in initiatives and creativity among the members of civil society.” A further article describes with some sense of color the enthusiastic reception given to the Pope by the youth of Camagüey. If memory serves, there is no significant difference between these stories and those describing earlier state visits by, say, Michael Manley or Pham Van Dong.

At the newly refurbished Hotel Ambos Mundos (the words “where Hemingway used to stay” are invariably attached to its name), we sit at the bar and watch the end of this day’s Mass. It is being broadcast live from Santiago, the eastern city that prides itself on its militant nationalistic spirit, and where Fidel’s 1953 assault on the Moncada barracks kindled the armed rebellion that would bring him to power in 1959. It is easy to forget that the Cuban nation is not yet a century old, but in Santiago the long fight for independence from Spain and freedom from United States dominion, and the central importance of the Sierra Maestra in the Fidelista revolution, are never forgotten. The Pope’s Cuban advisers have no doubt suggested that Santiago is the perfect place to address the question of patriotism and the nation during his homily.

The crucial words of the day, in fact, are not spoken by John Paul or even by the Cardinal of Havana, Jaime Ortega, who as a young priest spent some time in the notorious work camps where in the mid-1960s Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, militant Catholics, and even unruly youths such as the now-hallowed singer Pablo Milanés were sent to have their thinking corrected. The statement that will echo the longest—and that may well be the first statement critical of the Revolution to be distributed by a state-controlled medium in the last thirty years or so—comes in the course of a salutation to the Pope by the Bishop of Santiago, Pedro Meurice, who now holds the same position as the life-saving bishop Pérez Serantes of so long ago. The heart of Meurice’s impassioned declaration, much quoted since then, comes when he talks of a “growing number of Cubans who have confused the fatherland with a single party, the nation with the historical process we have lived through during the last few decades, and culture with an ideology.”

Friends familiar with Catholic policy say that the Vatican probably decided from the first that the Pope, in his role as head of state, should not be the one to refer specifically to the problems of the Catholic Church in Cuba, and that Cardinal Ortega should also remain above the fray, leaving Meurice to vent the feelings of the priests and other Catholics during his official salutation to the Pope. Foreign journalists read into Meurice’s speech the Vatican’s statement of defiance, but a complementary interpretation is possible: together with the fact that the Pope chose to bring up the issue of political prisoners—there are hundreds of them—only at a meeting he knew would not be televised, it could stand as evidence of the diligence with which the Church is seeking to avoid a counterproductive confrontation with Fidel, his Party, or his faithful during this trip. This is not to say that the Church ignored the impact Meurice’s words were likely to have. He is known as a firebrand, and Santiago, the fiery town, is said to be the place where anti-Castro sentiment is running strongest. It is here that the first loud chants of “åÁLibertad! åÁLibertad!” will be heard during the Mass.

Friends who were there will tell me later that significant numbers of Fidelista Cubans walked out during Meurice’s speech, that significant numbers of Catholics cheered wildly, and that in general in the plaza the feeling was that something enormous and irrevocable had taken place. But in the streets of downtown Havana Meurice’s words had no immediate impact that I could see. The hotel bar opens out onto the street, and as we sit in front of the TV set Cubans stroll by and stop to watch the screen. A Mass is an unfamiliar event for most of them. Unless it is the Pope himself, they have little sense of who is at the microphone (or up at bat, or on stage, as they would probably say, since a public gathering to them would suggest the national sport and dance concerts but not the liturgy). Meurice is unknown beyond Santiago. Cardinal Ortega is not recognized when he walks down the street—to my knowledge, he has never appeared on television before the papal visit, nor has he been quoted in a newspaper. After years of the revolutionary meetings called actos people have learned to stand for hours without listening very hard, and that is how they stand today in front of the television, commenting on how tired the Pope looks, how cute he is, how old he is, how very nice it is that he has come to visit Cuba, before moving on to other subjects or continuing their walks.

And so we, too, watch this historic moment, not listening to Meurice’s speech because we are busy ordering beers, and because I am hypnotized by the deliberately offensive way in which the waiter treats my friends, who are not only Cuban but black—evidently middle-class, evidently respectable, but black nevertheless, and evidently dollarless. But it may be that racism isn’t involved. It may be that there is something indefinable about my friends—the chunky, socialist cut of his worn shirt, perhaps, or a kind of discipline, or a kind of primness—that tags them as Party loyalists, and it may be the case in downtown Havana, where hustlers and dealmakers are in charge, that the last of the true believers, with their tiresome principles and their dignity and their intolerance and their dogmas, are despised.

My friends appear to devote enormous energy to figuring out the immediate future—where to get dollars, how to get a spare part for their rickety Soviet Lada—and to figuring out ways not to think of the long-term future. Their lives changed in 1990, and during the remaining days I will spend on the island, as I talk to more Cubans about the bitter days of hunger, brutal physical hardship, and uncertainty they endured between 1990 and 1994, I come to feel that the demise of the Soviet Union must have been an event as inconceivable and shattering as the arrival of the Spaniards on Mexico’s shores was for the Aztecs. And I can see why one would want to avoid thinking about the future, because, no matter what happens, the future looks terrible for people like my friends—people between the ages of forty and sixty who were brought up by the Revolution and given a new life through it.

The husband comes from a dirt-poor family that migrated from the countryside to the slums of Havana, and thanks to the Revolution he is now fluent in two useless languages—Russian and Bulgarian—and holds a degree in a useless discipline—Marxist economics. Mistakes were made in the past, he tells me—like the work camps, the repression of the Catholic Church, the view that young men with long hair were an evil virus that could bring the Revolution down—but they have been rectified. Now that the worst of the periodo especial is over—this is what the government calls the free-fall the country went into in 1990—Cuba is finding its way again. Look at how much has been done to restore Havana, he says, several times. A big foreign consortium has signed a contract to restore the old city, “and leave it just as it was.” Just as it was before the Revolution, that is to say.

But so many things are already on their way to being just as they were: prostitution and racism, and corrosive poverty that is eating away even at the regime’s proudest achievements. One afternoon during this trip I will go with my friend to the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital to pick up a relative who has just had a knee operation: this patient has been released into the sweltering chaos of the hospital gates, where people on stretchers wait for hours for a gasping public service jitney to collect those living more or less in the same direction and take them home. She is lucky to be getting a private ride, but I’m not sure how well she’ll do when she gets home. The anesthesia from the operation has not yet worn off: when it does, she will have to learn to put up with pain, because, other than the warning that she cannot take aspirin, the surgeons have given her nothing. There are no painkillers for minor surgery at Havana’s largest and most modern hospital.

It is hard to imagine that a quarter-century of Soviet subsidies ended in this. When I ask friends where all the money went (between $50 and $75 billion is the most moderate estimate, a figure that includes low-interest loans, direct subsidies, and subsidized prices for Cuban products) they come up with a rather short list: the army and all its equipment, from uniforms to missiles; the island’s now-outdated electric power system; the nuclear plant that was supposed to free Cuba from its dependence on foreign oil, and which was left two-thirds finished; the highway system; some monstrous buildings—mainly designed as residences for “foreign technicians,” as the socialist bloc advisors were known, but also some schools and hospitals—and the biomedical industry, which may yet bring in significant foreign income.

By comparison with the Dominican Republic, say, Cuba is hopelessly behind on computerization, infrastructure of all sorts, even modest industries like canneries or match factories, and—now that the exhortatory slogans have changed from “Ten million tons of sugar!” to “Two million tourists in the year 2000!”—tourist accommodations. On the other hand, very few poor Dominicans can aspire to the education received by a poor Cuban (all but a few Cubans are poor, virtually all Cubans have a diploma from a tolerably competent high school), and not all that many Dominicans have the kind of discipline, the espíritu de sacrificio, or the sense of having played a relevant, heroic, and inspiring role in the history of the twentieth century that serves as spiritual fuel for Cubans like my friends.

“We just have to get the economy working again, under these new conditions,” says the husband, “and then everything will be all right.” Proudly, he tells me that if I wish to make an international phone call I can do so at the Habana Libre hotel, where he drops me off. It turns out that I can indeed buy an electronic card there for ten dollars, insert it into a working phone, and get an instant connection to virtually any city in the world, thanks to a Mexican company which has contracted to modernize Cuba’s ancient phone system. Perhaps the fact that my friends would have to pool their entire monthly wages to buy one of these cards and talk with their daughter in Mexico for about ten minutes is only important in the short term. Perhaps it is inevitable that tourists will want to buy human bodies along with their beers and maracas. Perhaps the fact that in the crumbling two-room apartment where my friends live they only have running water every other day is trivial. They certainly seem to think so.

After taking an almost intolerably crowded bus that reeks of diesel back to my hotel (this is easily said, but it involved a one-hour wait, which the Cubans standing in line with me endured with veritable Christian patience and good humor), I find that I lack the energy to venture out again. Instead I turn on the Cuban television station and watch a terrible movie and a documentary that seems to have been filmed in real time and with a single middle-range lens, about a new road that has been built in an outlying part of the island. The camera appears to have been mounted in the cabin of a truck, and it keeps its gaze determinedly on the new road ahead; when the narrator describes the many awesome twists and turns it takes, we take those turns with him, eyes on the asphalt. In addition to the narrator’s voice, we hear only some feeble background music. Hardly a human being appears on screen. The Cuban film industry once produced exciting and original fiction films and documentaries as a matter of course, but the talent pool seems to have gone stagnant. Programming ends with a broadcast of a performance by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. I am already dozing when I realize that the grimacing figure staggering about in a tutu is none other than Alicia Alonso. According to the Encyclopedia of Dance and Ballet,2 she was born in 1917.


January 25: Sunrise again, and I have been walking briskly through the cool, expectant dawn, headed for the Plaza de la Revolución, where today’s Mass, the central act we have all been waiting for, will take place. The pilgrims and foreign priests at the hotel left for the plaza in chartered buses hours ago, and I am afraid that I have already missed something, that a river of people have already flowed into the plaza and left me behind. In a characteristic tactical masterstroke, Fidel has gone on television a few days earlier to exhort everyone—Catholics and Fidelistas—to show up at the plaza today, and to greet the Pope warmly, and to refrain from any sign of disrespect like whistling at bits of the homily they might not like or shouting revolutionary slogans. Even when set against John Paul II, Fidel is no mean politician: after this broadcast appeal, the large contingent of Cuban exiles who are making their pilgrimage to the Plaza will look foolish, or worse, if they try to turn the Mass into a political rally. And no one will be able to say whether the crowds in the plaza are the Pope’s or Fidel’s. No one will be able to claim that the acto was an act of defiance against the regime. In effect, Fidel has offered his faithful on loan to the Pope for the day, like the splendid host he is reputed to be.

But it seems that his faithful are staying away. There are people out on the streets, certainly, but very few of them are going in my direction (even though the ever-vigilant neighborhood Comités para la Defensa de la Revolución have been reminding people that they are expected at the event). It is only in the vicinity of the plaza, where the loudspeakers broadcasting an animador’s enthusiastic chanting can already be heard, that the odd cluster of people I see here and there, carrying missals or rosaries and little plastic flags in the Vatican’s yellow and white colors, start to form into a crowd. These are the Pope’s faithful.

It is not quite 7 AM when I reach the Plaza de la Revolución, and it is already more than half full of people who have obviously been here for hours, looking as if they are about to levitate from sheer joy. Hymns are being sung with the kind of full-throated enthusiasm I remember was voiced for the Revolution back in the Seventies. The crowd, I conclude, is overwhelmingly Catholic and not, as Fidelistas claim about Catholics, overwhelmingly elderly, although it is, as is also alleged, predominantly white. A bizarre visual displacement has taken place: on the front of the National Library, where large portraits of Marx, Lenin, or the like usually hang, there is a gigantic mural of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A slogan underneath it reads, “Jesus Christ, in you I trust.” The emotional epicenter of the plaza is no longer the podium that is always set up for revolutionary actos at the foot of a horrid statue of Jose Martí erected by Batista, but a graceful white canopy set at right angles to it, which shelters the altar where the Mass will take place.

Because the altar is not set very high, it will be almost hidden from view by 9 AM, when the plaza has filled and the Mass is about to begin. Police barriers divide the crowd in half and define a pathway along which the Virgin of Charity, Patroness of Santiago and indeed of Cuba, is now carried in procession to the altar. Unexpectedly, the Popemobile is suddenly visible along this pathway too, and there are screams and a flurry of enthusiasm as the crowd catches sight of John Paul II. It is still early and the skies are gray; no one can be suffering from heatstroke or dehydration, but the Red Cross volunteers posted throughout the plaza are kept busy ferrying people on stretchers to the first-aid tents—elderly women, mostly, who may have fainted from sheer emotion. Has Fidel arrived? Where is he? I ask over and over again. No one seems to know, or care.

And now it is the Mass, set to beautiful Cuban music specially composed for this occasion. The clave de son—the distinct Afro-Cuban one-two-three, one-two beat clicked out with wooden sticks as a convocation to the dance—fills the sound system. Everywhere, people are waving yellow-and-white flags. They sing along, tentatively and then more forcefully, guided by booklets that have been handed out. “He who sows love harvests love,” they sing. I come from a long Mexican anticlerical tradition, but these sentiments are a refreshing change from the intransigent chants of the Revolution (“Whoever pops his head up, hit him hard, Fidel!”). Throughout the Mass, crowds continue to enter the plaza. Oddly, though, throngs are also leaving it. One possible explanation is that these are the non-Catholics who have come here out of curiosity or because Fidel said they should, and who, having seen enough, depart.

I leave too, because no one can tell me if Fidel is here and I cannot bear to miss the spectacle I have come all this way to witness. In search of a television, I wander around a poor neighborhood behind the plaza until I hear the Mass blaring from a television set. The sound comes from the front room of a tiny house whose front porch holds a couple of rusty bicycles and a decrepit lawn chair. Inside is more dilapidated furniture, the television, and a pleasant-looking woman who is peeling garlic in a creaky aluminum rocker in front of the set and who immediately offers me her seat. She brings me a glass of cool water, and then a tiny cup of sweet, dark coffee, keeping up a running commentary all the while on the Mass. The Pope is handing Bibles to a group of Church activists, including an elderly woman whom he draws to him for an embrace. “See that!” my hostess exclaims. “That little old lady must feel like we do when we get our Party card!” Her mood changes when the camera cuts away to the front row of chairs in front of the altar to show, at last, the sight I have been waiting for: Fidel Castro, attending Mass in the Plaza de la Revolución. Behind the altar, facing where he sits, is the mural of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I remark that this is a sight I never expected to see. “And neither did I,” my hostess says, not smiling. “Neither did I.”

My hostess is a lifelong Party militant in her mid-thirties. She and her eight-year-old son sleep in one of the two bedrooms in the little house. The other is occupied by her former husband, who in the seven years since the couple divorced has been unable to get the officials in charge of these things to authorize new living quarters for him. There will be meat for Sunday dinner today because a friend has brought her a cut of pork, but even though the food situation has improved greatly and she says she no longer goes hungry, as she did during the lean 1990-1994 years, the shelves in her kitchen are nearly bare. She offers me a present—a commemorative issue of Granma on the anniversary of Che’s death.

Later she will insist on giving me a farewell present as well—a color photograph of Fidel—before walking with me to the main avenue, from which we can see the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The day she came upon the mural as she was walking to work will remain in her memory forever, she says. “I remember all the years that we would evaluate our co-workers in our work centers, and we had compañeras who were hard-working, and skillful, and punctual, and loyal, and comradely, and when it came time to evaluate them for promotion or grant them the right to new living quarters, we would always say no, because they were Catholic. And now here is this mural in the place where we usually put our heroes. Was this what we held back our Catholic compañeras for?” she asks in a sudden outburst. “I accept what I am told to accept, because I am loyal. But I do not understand.”

I wonder what Fidel makes of this strange new position he finds himself in. I wonder if his admiration for John Paul II is increasing as he watches him play a crowd with a skill few men other than Fidel himself have ever shown. The Pope’s most important sermon addresses the question of the embargo and the evils of neoliberalism, “which subordinates the human person to blind market forces and conditions the development of peoples to those forces.” The interesting thing is that the crowd I take to be overwhelmingly Catholic, and therefore, perhaps, conservative, cheers and claps with rising enthusiasm during this impassioned denunciation. “Do you think people are supposed to clap during Mass?” my hostess wonders, and at that point the Pope interrupts his discourse, jokingly, to address that very question. “The Pope likes it when you applaud,” he says, each word an effort. “Because when you do so, he can rest a little bit.” The camera shows us that Fidel is laughing with the crowd.

Although the Pope is speaking more clearly than he has throughout the trip, his voice is nearly gone, his facial muscles are so deteriorated that a smile is almost impossible, and still he manages to convey irony, humor, and a bantering tenderness in his improvised remarks that have the crowd in a frenzy of delight. When the cheering stops he continues with the prepared text. “At times unsustainable economic programs are imposed on nations as a condition for further assistance,” he reads, and by now my hostess is with the crowd in its enthusiasm. “Did you hear that!” she yells. “That man is going to be a Party militant by the time he leaves this island!”

In the plaza the roaring approval goes on for so long that the Pope holds up a hand. “Thou art a very active audience,” he admonishes, again with that bantering intimacy. “But now we must continue.” He holds the pause a beat. “It’s only one more page.” And now, while the orchestra plays a lilting Creole melody, it’s time for the kiss of peace, the moment in modern Catholic ritual when people turn to each other and embrace while wishing each other peace. The screen shows members of the Communist Party Central Committee exchanging hugs with nuns, cardinals wishing peace to Fidel. One of the young priests serving as acolytes for this liturgy is in tears. The Mass is over.

Something extraordinary has taken place. Later, I will ask a wise and wily priest just what it was that occurred. “None of us knows,” he answers. “And the first thing we have to do now, all of us, is sit down and reflect on what we saw. One thing is certain: It has been proved that all Cubans—Cubans from the island and Cubans from Miami, nonbelievers and Catholics—can gather joyfully and in peace, for a good cause. And if this happened once, it can happen again, with the right conditions.”

I comment on the general perception that Fidel was entranced by the Pope, and on my perception that the Pope was not necessarily entranced back. “The Pope is entranced by no one,” the priest says drily. “The Pope is entranced by his God.”

Perhaps, I suggest, this is because his need was nowhere as great as Fidel’s. After all, what could Cuba offer the Pope in exchange for the Vatican’s stand against the blockade? Rather sharply, I am told that for the Pope there was never any question of an exchange. “The Pope has a different sense of time, he is Polish, and he likes to point out that for two hundred years Poland did not exist as a nation, until at long last, because there were always Poles who took care to keep alive the language and the culture and the idea of the fatherland, Poland reemerged among the world of nations. And so the Pope says,” says the priest, “that if we cannot know if our acts will have consequences a hundred years from now, or two, or five hundred, all one can do is what one feels is right at any given moment, without expecting results.”

This is not the way a seventy-one-year-old man fighting for the survival of the regime he created can afford to count the years. There is no way of knowing what shape the change that is coming to Cuba will take or how fast it will go. Fidelistas, having absorbed the lessons of glasnost rather differently from those of us who watched it taking place far from the island of Cuba, are afraid that opening up their country to the world, as the Pope exhorted them to, will bring unruliness and disaster. And yet the consequences of the world opening up to Cuba, as the Pope also demanded, and as all Cubans on the island want—an end to the blockade, and to their country’s diplomatic isolation, in other words—may result in far speedier and more uncontrollable change. The officially enshrined ideals of selflessness and sacrifice have been undermined more thoroughly by tourism and the corruption and cynicism provoked by the hunt for dollars than anyone would like to admit.

On the other hand, tourism generates its own liberation. It is impossible today to monitor the potentially subversive activities of every happy beachgoer. Nor will Fidel ever dare again to jail or expel a priest. Now that more than one hundred political prisoners have been released, a subsequent increase in the regime’s many forms of political repression could unleash a worldwide rejection by tourists that would bring the economy to its knees in no time. Thousands of Cubans risked their lives crossing the strait between their island and Florida on rafts made from inner tubes—and many died in the effort. Those who chose to stay behind lived through the 1990-1994 crisis with stoicism, but no one expects that the reaction to a new time of hunger would be so peaceful. It could even be argued that, economically crippled and internationally isolated as it is, restricted to tactical maneuvers and unable to formulate any initiatives that are not, in fact, concessions, revolutionary Cuba, Fidel’s dream of a perfect Cuba, is already a dream of the past.

Curiously, although the Fidelistas may be full of fear and apprehension, Fidel himself is busily opening the floodgates to the new times, as the Pope’s visit demonstrated. The only question is how aware he is of what he is doing, and how many allies he has among the aged comrades who have run the country according to his dictates for nearly four decades. His brother and appointed successor, Raúl, gave a numbingly dreary speech two days after the Pope’s departure which made no allusion to the visit and was remarkable only in the consistency with which it hewed to the old formulas. Within the Party ranks, a social-democratic tendency is clearly visible, although there is no way of knowing at this point whether the ostensible reformers in the “new” generation, middle-aged Party leaders like Ricardo Alarcón and Carlos Lage, represent that trend. Nor can one predict whether the currently harassed or imprisoned members of the anti-Communist opposition, some of whom identify themselves as social and Christian democrats, will prove any match for the well-off Miami-based conservatives who are anxious to incorporate themselves into the political scene and the economy once Fidel is gone. And how will Fidel leave? Lately he has been heard saying things like “no man is immortal,” but has he considered the possibility that he may not be allowed to die on the job?

For the moment, it is the Pope who is making his departure this misty Sunday evening, Fidel once again standing reverently at his side. Once again John Paul II is making a little joke. “When I came out of the Cathedral this afternoon, after all these days of heat, it was raining,” he begins. “I asked myself, Why? Why rain? Can it be that it is a sign that the Cuban skies are weeping because the Pope is leaving?” Fidel watches him with an open-mouthed smile, one great showman rejoicing in another’s brinkmanship performance. “No!” the Pope thunders. “That would be a very superficial hermeneutics!” and the shadow of a sly smile flickers across his face. Fidel is laughing, and John Paul goes on to say, in Latin, that rains are a sign of hope and good fortune.

—February 24, 1998

This Issue

March 26, 1998