Wednesday 9 October 2013

When Pope John Paul met Fidel Castro


By Patrick Brigham – 1998 and the Pope’s Visit to Cuba 

The old two engine Russian Antonov rattled, shook and then finally took off from Nassau airport New Providence, into the sunny Caribbean ski. On board were mainly Cubans returning from business trips abroad and a number of Bahamians most likely off to savor the delights of Cuban night life, and to no doubt return with copious amounts of cigars, to be sold in the Bahamas to visiting Americans. On the beaches of Paradise Island and elsewhere one sees countless US citizens striding through the sand, purposely puffing on large Havana cigars, perhaps a small symbol of individuality where little else exists.

We flew over azure waters so blue that even the romantic descriptions of Buzz Aldren - as he circled the earth in space - did little to truly describe the magnificent beauty which I could see through my grubby window. Over Andros and towards Cuba the sea begins to change colour slightly and becomes a deeper blue, over saltmarsh and Cays, the tips of marine mountains, poking through the surface of the sea to create lush natural gardens with protruding rocks and palm trees. It is no wonder that Pirates like Black Beard, Ann Bonney and Mary Read chose to spend their short lives amongst these islands before suffering an ignominious death.

Havana is a large sprawling city, and flying low over neatly plowed fields, we finally approached the end of the runway, disembarking with a cheery goodbye from our Cubana Air cabin crew. No problems with immigration, no stamps in my passport, and just the casual question; was I an American? My traveling companion had been in Cuba, on and off, for some twenty years, and was well organized. We were met at Jose Marti airport by a confident young man dressed in tee shirt and baseball cap, who took us to his awaiting Lada. Parked next to old 50’s American cars, in various states of disrepair, with animated conversation he confidently took to the bumpy Cuban roads. Making our way past very familiar Socialist buildings, bicycles, old Russian trucks, and people of all age’s types and colors, we drove into Havana.

The Pope had been there for two days, and to underline the sense of occasion, one only had to see the amazing number of posters of him, either by himself, or with Fidel Castro, on buildings in cars and finally when I arrived at my destination, on the glass door of the apartment in which I was to stay. It was Saturday, the sun was shining and looking out of my window, I watched the sea lapping the shores of what was considered locally as a prime location, next to the Cococabana Hotel.

Taxis are quite expensive in Havana, despite their often decrepit appearance, and I was able to find a private driver who agreed to be my guide for the next few days. Jojo, as he called himself was an older man, who not only had a clean Lada, but a sense of humour. That Saturday afternoon he drove me around Havana on a photographic expedition, which would have taken a gormless tourist a week. The Old Town is an architectural wonder, so full of Spanish History, so beautifully preserved, full of book shops and art galleries, museums and restaurants. When I asked Jojo what he had done for a living before retirement he said ‘I was an architect by profession, but first and foremost a soldier of the Revolution!’ With a bit of French, English, some Russian and Spanish, we got on very well, and he even took me for some coffee and insisted on paying.

Being an old traveller, Havana reminded me of Spain during the 60’s, although my recollection of Franco’s Spain, involved far greater signs of state security, of men wearing various uniforms, lurking around on street corners watching one another, and being watched in turn by men in leather coats. During the Popes visit, Havana had many uniformed policemen in evidence, but they were passive and unarmed - except for handcuffs, and batten - and were there, I suspect, mainly to tidy up the many professional ladies who widely inhabit the streets at all times of the day. These mainly young and friendly policemen seemed to want to create a good impression, and to help the large number of tourists - mainly from Europe and Canada - who now go to Cuba, and those like me who had especially come for this remarkable visit.

In common with many eastern Europeans I have met in the past; before the changes, Jojo took me to see some hotels in order that I might realize the strident changes which socialism had made in Castro’s Cuba. But I managed to steer him away to sights far more worthy of my meager photographic skills, and despite a fleeting visit to the Hotel Inglaterra - a beautiful portico’d period building full of charm, and a pianist who aptly sang ‘I did it My Way’ - followed by the pride of Havana; the Hotel National de Cuba, I somehow managed to look at the real world, and the Havana which I had come to see.

That night I went with Tchocho my traveling companion to the famous Earnest Hemingway restaurant called La Bodeguita Del Medio. The walls of the restaurant are covered with hundreds of well known signatures, and with two musicians playing traditional Cuban music, it was an evening to remember. The food was also good. We both started with black bean soup, followed by huge plates full of roast pork, sweet potatoes, and fried bananas. Washed down by plenty of the local beer, the bill only came to $30. Cubans love Earnest Hemingway, but apparently not the Americans!

What made Havana for me was the music, the architecture - Jojo was great - the food the sun, the people, and of course the great occasion of the Popes visit. There will be those who would like to reduce his visit to a political scam, but it was not true. In the great Boulevard of the Revolution, Sunday morning proved this to be a myth. Over a million people attended Pope John Paul’s final mass, which took place on a platform over which had been erected a canopy designed to appear like a white dove of peace, the backdrop to which was the flank wall of a massive office building, which had been painted with what must be the largest painting of Christ in the World. There was undoubtedly a great feeling of spirituality, neatly woven together with the kind of euphoria one might expect from a people who had been starved of what they must regard as the Mother Church.

There are Catholic Churches everywhere in Cuba, and many priests to officiate, but somehow there had been forty years in a wilderness, created by the sanctions which only politics can impose. Sunday proved to everyone - particularly to Cubans - that this was no longer the case; that they were unquestionably a part of a World society of Christian believers, and that they had a place in this new order, and a right to be there. On an adjacent wall there was also a large outline of Che Guevara, to remind us all of the ‘Continuing Revolution.’

The Pope blessed the people and the politicians and firmly told both the Cubans and the Americans to be more reasonable. Afterwards, the camera crews packed up their gadgets, loaded their vehicles and returned to their hotels, where they occupied whole floors for their studios, and editing rooms. In the Capri Hotel - reputed to have belonged to Al Capone - CBS reporters sat back gazing at TV screens wearing Bermuda shorts, tee shirts, and baseball caps; turned the wrong way round, with great identity tags swinging from their necks. To them it was, after all, just another World event amongst so many. But it had not only been a media event, it was far more than that!

Cuban National TV had transmitted the whole event live, and watching parts of the broadcast during the early afternoon, one could see in detail what had been missing from view in the crowded arena, so full of optimistic and occasionally rowdy people. It seems that the Pope attracts his own variety of football songs, which means that he also attracts the young. People of all ages went to see him - not as stated in the media by presidential decree - but by choice, and to support an aging President who had the guts to allow the occasion to unfurl with its own momentum.

Fidel Castro was as much moved as were all his people, and the so called ‘tyrant’ had the same look of supplication as many of those who took mass, and most of the attendant onlookers from the diplomatic missions who were very evidently supporting this historical moment. I will never forget the look of submission on the face of the President when he bid the Pope farewell; neither will I forget the look of firm resolve on the face of the Pontiff, as he left his huge and sublimely moved congregation, to return once more to Rome. This was real, and although the cynical and politically motivated might have their day on TV and in the press, the winds of change are blowing in Cuba, and for the best.

Sunday evening proved to be a musical occasion to remember. Having met some friends and visited a few more hotels. One in particular had a theme restaurant called The Havana Café which had two splendidly renovated old American cars, a suspended biplane, two old Harley Davidson motor bikes, lots of old sepia photographs of famous Cuban singers and film actors, old gramophones, and unbelievably a huge ships propeller. Then we went off for an early dinner to a so called Polynesian Restaurant.

It could have been any old state run restaurant in any east European country, and the Polynesian aspect was about a few old carvings, and the food? Well it was sort of Chinese, was a sort of expensive chicken with salad, and a bit of sweet and sour source. But my guests were delighted.

            That evening we visited a great underground jazz club called La Zorra y el Cveovo, and listened to the El Grego Sextet, which played the most exciting Cuban Jazz I have heard, complete with drums, bongo percussion, two pianos, and a front line including Jose El Grego’s brilliant flugle horn. You’ve got to go for that alone.

The Cuban Peso is currently pegged to the USD at 23 Peso/ $1 although four years ago it was 150 Peso/ $1, and an average income in Cuba is around $20/30 USD. But people are not short of food, because there is presently a rationing system, concerning the basic staple dietary requirements such as rice, oil, meat, sugar, and flour. All these items are sold at highly discounted prices where a good average comparison would be sugar at 30 cents per Pound (lb) - ration price - and $4 for the black market price. So people tend to live within their dietary perimeters, and with extended families can survive with ease, if not on simple fare. People claim that their life in Cuba is better than it used to be, mainly - as stated in the last issue of the SWN - because the Government has resolved some of its difficulties brought about by the final bust up with Russia and the ex Soviet Union. They have now managed to find some new markets, but, what about Helms-Burton?

Started in 1996, there is now a Spanish Businessman’s Association in Cuba, headed by a Mr. Rafael Garcia Aznar who also runs a firm called Bas y Pujol International S.A. He states that. ‘In spite of the attempt to establish and enforce laws such as the Helms-Burton in third countries, aside from political considerations, which are not part of our sphere, we believe it is unacceptable because of its extraterritorial character. What could happen, and indeed has happened is that - for lack of information - certain businessmen who have the intention of starting business relations with Cuba became discouraged. However to say that these investors withdrew because they feared this law is another matter. Our association came into being at precisely the same time as Helms-Burton was launched and in spite of all the importance given to the possible consequences of its application, we’re moving ahead; not as a challenge, but rather because our Association offers us greater guarantees of security and action.’

Back at the Jose Marti airport, there is a lot of action. It is Tuesday and the little Antonov has been replaced by a Topolev 154, to accommodate all the errant multimedia as it drifts back to various parts of the world via Nassau. Well known TV personalities punctuate the otherwise drab passengers, who hug heavy looking hand luggage jointly and severally containing thousands of USD’s worth of Havana cigars, there eyes glazed over by the memory of sultry nights spent with sultry Cuban beauties, albeit at a commercial rate!

I look at a week old copy of Granma International, one of the few but state owned newspapers in Cuba. On the font page it states ‘Colossal Victory. 98.35% voter turnout. The preliminary results of the January 11th elections for Deputies to the National Assembly of People’s Power….. President Fidal Castro and General of the Army Raul Castro were elected with more than 99% of the votes in their electoral districts….. The people say “Yes” at the polls.’

Later the Vatican reported as follows. ‘The secretary of state - Cardinal Angelo Sodano - has been informed that the Cuban government has freed a certain number of detainees, as an act of clemency and goodwill to mark the visit of Pope John Paul to Cuba… The Vatican is delighted with this notable step which represents a concrete prospect of hope for the future of this noble nation.’ In the end it is the old stories which prevail.

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Something for A Quiet Time- by Patrick Brigham

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