In my series of blogs called ‘Then and Now,’ I explore the changes, which have occurred in Communist countries, during the last twenty years of geopolitical unrest and how they are now perceived. Countries are the people - not just the commercial signs of a modern society - and it is important to understand how these very same people have developed as the years pass us by.
Recently, Cuba has returned to the debating room of the West, where it is becoming increasingly hard to understand why the US stance remains so intractable – despite a few encouraging improvements of late, by Obama –remaining the only country which continues to be swamped in Cold War rhetoric.Obama has opened the door to North America, but has he opened the minds of Republicans and the redneck community, enough to declare that Cuba is on its way to becoming the 51st State.
I was in Havana during Pope John Pauls incredible visit in 1998 and this was the article I published in the Sofia Western News, for which I was the Chief Editor.
1998. The old two engine Antonov rattled, shook and then finally took off from Nassau airport New Providence, into the sunny Caribbean sky. On board were mainly Cubans, returning from business trips abroad and a number of Bahamians, most likely off to savour the delights of Cuban nightlife and destined to return home, with copious amounts of cigars, to be sold in the Bahamas to visiting Americans. On the beaches of Paradise Island and elsewhere, one often sees US citizens striding through the sand, purposely puffing on large Havana cigars, perhaps a small symbol of their 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 the salt marsh 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 ploughed fields, we finally approached the end of the runway, disembarking with a cheery goodbye from our Cabana Air cabin crew. No problems with immigration, no stamps in my passport, and just the casual question - was I an American citizen? My travelling companion had been in Cuba, on and off, for some twenty years, was well organized and we were met, at Jose Marti airport, by a confident young man dressed in tee shirt and baseball cap, who took us to his waiting 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 looking buildings, bicycles, old Russian trucks, and people of all age’s types and colours, we finally drove into Havana City.
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 found 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 experienced traveller, Havana reminded me of Spain during the 60’s, although my recollection of Franco’s Spain, involved far greater signs of state security. In Spain, I remember men wearing various uniforms, lurking around on street corners watching one another, and being watched in turn by men in leather coats. During the Pope’s 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, to help the large number of tourists - mainly from, Europe and Canada - who now go to Cuba and those like me, who had specially come for this remarkable visit.
In common with many Eastern Europeans I have met in the past - before the political changes, that is - Jojo took me to see some hotels in order that I might realize the strident improvements which socialism had made in Castro’s Cuba. I finally managed to steer him away to sights far more worthy of my meagre photographic skills, which included a fleeting visit to the Hotel Inglaterra; a beautiful portico’d period building full of charm, and a pianist who also sang ‘I did it My Way.’ Followed by the pride of Havana - the Hotel National de Cuba - I somehow managed to steer Jojo into the real world, and the Havana which I had mainly come to see.
That night I went to the famous Earnest Hemingway restaurant called La Bodeguita Del Medio. The walls of the restaurant were covered with hundreds of famous signatures, and with two musicians playing traditional Cuban music, it was an evening to remember.
The food was also good, but what made Havana for me was the music, the architecture - Jojo was great - the sun, the people and of course, the great occasion of the Pope’s visit. There will be those who would like to reduce Pope John Pauls 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 the Cubans had erected a canopy designed to look 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. That day, there was undoubtedly a great feeling of spirituality, neatly woven together with the kind of euphoria one might expect from a nation which had been starved of what they must regard, as their Mother Church.
There are Catholic churches everywhere in Cuba and many priests officiate, but somehow forty years in the wilderness - created by the sanctions which only politics can impose - had left its mark. 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 - that they had a place in this new order, and a human 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 as their studios and editing rooms. In the Capri Hotel - reputed to have belonged at one time to Al Capone - CBS reporters sat back, gazing at TV screens wearing Bermuda shorts, tee shirts and baseball caps – usually 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 optimism 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 world media, by presidential decree - but by choice, and in support of an aging President who had the guts to allow the occasion to unfurl with its own momentum.
Fidel Castro was much moved - as were all his people - and the so called ‘tyrant’ undoubtedly seemed to have the same look of supplication as many of those who took mass. This included many attendant onlookers, from the diplomatic missions and elsewhere, supporting this historical moment.
I will never forget the look of submission in the face of President Fidel Castro himself - when he bid the Pope farewell - neither will I forget the look of firm resolve in the face of the Pontiff, as he left this huge and sublimely moved congregation, to return once more to Rome. This was real, and although the politically motivated had their disparaging and occasionally cynical day in the press and on TV, he winds of change were clearly blowing in Cuba and for the best.
Back at the Jose Marti airport, there was a lot of action. It is now Tuesday and the little Antonov airliner had been replaced by a Topolev 154, to accommodate all the babbling multimedia drifting back to various parts of the world via Nassau, many well known international TV personalities interspersed, by otherwise anodyne businessmen. Clasping hand luggage, containing expensive Cohiba cigars, their eyes glazed over with the memory of sultry nights, spent with sultry Cuban beauties - albeit at the local commercial rate – their smuggled cigars would no doubt be sold to American holiday makers, visiting the islands, at a vast profit!
On the return flight, I look at a week old copy of Granma International, one of the state owned newspapers in Cuba. On the front page it stated ‘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 Fidel 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 that week, the Vatican reported : ‘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 Cub 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.
And so, the spiritual voyage had ended and the political stories began. America continued to take its revenge on this virtually harmless nation, claiming all sorts of infamy and conspiracy, where none actually existed. Any fool could see that Cuba had lost its political independence, when the USSR had collapsed and their economic support had finally evaporated. But, this did not stop successive American administrations describing Cuba, as a snarling dog, when in truth – with few teeth remaining – it was only capable of giving the USA – or anyone else for that matter - a nasty suck!
Recently a vote was taken at the UN for Cuba to be taken off the long standing US unilateral trade embargo, which has been kept securely in place since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Yesterday, the Americans decided to veto an almost unanimous vote - which the great powers now seem to regard as quite unfair - for Cuba to be allowed a normal trade relationship with the its powerful neighbour, the US, as well as the rest of the world.
With the support of their troublesome client state, Israel – a rather belligerent perpetrator of human rights violations, in their own right – it seems that the Obama administration, is held firmly in the grip of some hideously ignorant right wing dinosaur, who still regards the country of Cuba as the Evil Empire!
Whilst they discuss such heady matters, in the smoking rooms and bars in Washington, they no doubt happily puff away at their expensive Cohiba cigars. Not realizing – through their poor geography skills and their firm belief that the little island sweltering in the Carribean is probably Ireland or even Madagascar – and totally unaware, that their favourite smoke comes care of their perceived arch enemies, Fidel and Raul Castro.
Before I flew to Cuba in 1998, I spent some time in Nassau. At that time, Nassau seemed to be full of rather portly Americans – enjoying some early sunshine on the sandy beaches – usually puffing away; you’ve guessed it, on large Cohiba cigars. Overhearing two of Americas finest political analysts discussing Cuba, one of these stalwarts was heard to say, ‘I don’t know why we don’t just nuke Castro, it’s the only solution.’
Well, apart from depriving him of his favourite cigars, it would probably have also blown his rather ample bathing shorts off and anything he still had hidden beneath! This underlines the basic truth that many Americans are not so good at geography, but instead, they are rather good at all aspects of violence and so it seems; retribution.
From this side of the pond, when one hears about school or university shootings, it seems odd when the NRA advocates even more guns. The mind boggles at the thought of well armed teachers and school prefects, pushing their way to the common room, waving a Glock 17 in the air. But that is America and few politicians have been able to curb the US gun culture, which no doubt has its roots in the old pioneer days. Unfortunately it underlines not only US society, but how it is inclined to deal with others.
Castro, in some respects, humiliated the US with the Bay of Pigs fiasco. From then on it was all down hill for most Cubans, who seem to have been on the receiving end of considerable American angst ever since and - dare I say - thoughts of lingering revenge. Leaving out all the Cold War nuances - and the WWII battle hardened soviet general, Nikita Kruschov - by 1990, Cuba, without the support of the Soviet Union simply became another little Carribean island. And, that is also Cuba today.
Fidel Castro no longer controls Cuba and any vestiges of power, now remain in the hands of his extremely moderate brother, Raul. He, like most Cubans, wants détente, equilibrium and calm. He would succeed in his quest, if the US were to present itself as a benign economic power as well as a military one. Because Cuba, not only needs dollars and as many American visitors as it can get, it needs to rebuild its infrastructure and manufacturing base in order to somehow, drift into the 21st Century.
America has always seen Cuba as a bordello, most certainly until 1959, when Batista was kicked out. Practically run by the American Mafia until then – now a part of US folk history – it seems appropriate for US business to plough some of its newly famous transparent cash, into Cuba’s shaky economy. And, what will America expect in return? Well, I expect, the same as before!