Iván García, 29 September 2015 — When the bearded guerrilla Fidel Castro on the night of 28 September 1960 founded a system of collective surveillance in every neighborhood, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), civil society in Cuba was annulled until further notice.
Not even Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany, with its full record of social intrusions, had structured a system of neighborhood cooperatives with espionage services.
The most similar equivalent might be Benito Mussolini’s Black Shirts, a paramilitary corps behind numerous episodes of physical or verbal violence and aggression against its political adversaries in Italy during the 1920s.
However, with the CDRs, Fidel Castro expanded the scope of action. Just as they might arrange the verbal lynching of a dissident or denounce a neighbor for suspicion of “illicit enrichment,” they might also volunteer in a children’s polio vaccination campaign or a collection of raw materials.
If the repressive action of State Security is the right hand of the regime, the CDRs comprise a legitimizing entity for government policies.
Be it out of double standards, irresponsibility, or routine, more than 7-million people in Cuba are in the CDRs. As of the age of 14, in an almost automatic fashion, the residents of a neighborhood all join the organization.
Two decades ago, besides collective vigilance, they would also have tedious political debates to dissect Castro’s latest speech, perform nighttime guard duty to protect State interests, and put on blood drives.
Every neighbor contributes a monthly quota of five Cuban pesos ($0.25 US) to the organization. In the sinister mechanism of social control devised by Castro, the CDRs are an effective weapon.
To obtain an important position at work, you must first go through the filter of your block Committee. Without a letter from your CDR or an approval following an investigation of you by the Party, the Young Communist League, or Special Services, it is impossible to climb up in the extravagant Cuban social fabric.
As of the 21st Century, the organization is in shambles. By now, the watchdog rounds are hardly ever carried out, and even the local parties, with neighbors sipping soup and dancing reggaeton, are few and far between.
But the CDRs continue to be the primary ears for the political police. Any government opponent or independent journalist is surveilled by one or more members of the Committee.
This amateur espionage includes noting the vehicle registrations of embassy cars and foreigners who visit your house. In addition, they find out your standard of living, expenses, vices and habits–even what you eat.
By now the autocratic system is in freefall, and the meddling by the CDRs in the private lives of citizens is much reduced. It is not uncommon for the president of a local organization to be close friends with a dissident and to notify him when he is being investigated by State Security, or for that president to earn a few extra pesos on the side selling tickets for the clandestine local lottery.
There are still a few old intransigents left, labeled as lunatics by many neighbors, who plead for participation in the parody of elections for the National Assembly of People’s Power, or in volunteer projects.
People pay them little mind. The CDRs’ other battle front is the census and inventory of all residents. For this, there is a book entitled the Registry of Addresses.
In this book, the names, surnames, ages and addresses of all neighbors are scrupulously noted. When a citizen moves to a new address, he is required to report to his new location’s CDR, to be inscribed in that neighborhood’s Registry. Any temporary visitor, be he Cuban or foreign, is supposed to be reported to the CDR.
Based on reports from the Committee, the police detain and return to their provinces of origin any persons from other regions who are residing in Havana illegally.
The CDRs are located on every block in the cities, and in every village of rural areas. The next organizational level up is the Zone Committee, after that the District, then the Municipal, the Provincial, and ultimately the National.
The director of the network of CDRs is known as the National Coordinator. His offices, replete with bureaucrats and fuel consumers, are funded by the State. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez instituted similar collectives–perhaps even more dangerous, being that those are armed.
The regime represents these quasi-fascist monstrosities as being NGOs. This is Fidel Castro’s great contribution to the scrutiny of individuals of divergent thinking.
Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison
Ivan Garcia, 26 September 2015 — Let’s climb aboard a time machine. Into the future, of course. By now, Raul Castro has given up the throne. His son Alejandro has been tried for abuse of power, financial corruption and violations of human rights.
Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas, the Cuban Martin Borman, has fled with a safety deposit box. His face appears on wanted posters issued by Interpol, which is offering a substantial reward for information leading to his capture.
Antonio Castro has had better luck. A wayward womanizer, he stole a couple of million and squandered it in luxury European resorts. In the end, however, evidence that he had helped Cuban baseball players to escape the island led to his release from prison.
Two years have passed since the death of Fidel Castro on January 6, 2017. His embalmed body was removed from the Jose Marti Monument in Civic Plaza (it is no longer called Revolution Plaza) and interred in Biran, his birthplace. Since bad stuff tends to be forgotten quickly, people no longer talk about him or his eighty-eight-year-old brother.
Cows have gotten fatter and dairy farmers can now sell milk on the open market. Cubans can now have cafe con leche and buttered toast for breakfast. A steak with a side of fries is no longer just a dream.
The education and culture ministries were merged and Lis Cuesta, the wife of Miguel Diaz-Canel, was named to lead them. Given her travel experience, well-known blogger Yoani Sanchez was nominated to be head of the Ministry of Tourism but she turned it down. Dissident attorney Laritza Diversent did, however, agree to organize an independent judiciary, while prominent dissident Manuel Cuesta Morua is preparing to run as president in the 2022 elections. He wants to be the Creole Barack Obama.
Opposition is legal and political dissidents are no longer physically attacked. The opposition is led by Antonio Rodiles, Berta Soler and Angel Moya, whose commitments to freedom and respect for human rights are unquestioned. What must now be done, they say, is to eliminate vestiges of Castro-ism, whose supporters still control 90% of the country’s businesses.
The waters of national life are somewhat calmer. The ration book was eliminated along with the dual currency system. Every home now has internet access and cybercafes offer free wifi.
Diario de Cuba and On Cuba Magazine compete for online readers. Varela is organizing an exhibition of humor at the Acacia Gallery next to the Capitolio, while Ivan Cañas is preparing a photo exhibition at Fine Arts. El Pais, Le Monde, ABC, El Nuevo Herald, Diario de las Americas, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Folha de S. Paolo and Varela magazine are for sale on newsstands.
From their respective vantage points in Madrid, Paris and Miami, writers Raul Rivero, Zoe Valdes and Carlos Alberto Montaner observe the island’s state of affairs and are considering whether to bring their works to the International Book Fair of Havana, now held in temporary kiosks along Paseo del Prado.
The Karl Marx is now the Miramar Theater. After a major renovation, it will be the venue some of the events scheduled for the 500th anniversary of the founding of Havana on November 16, 2019. One of them is a concert of female voices from various countries: Xiomara Laugart, Argelia Fragoso, Vania Borges and Haila Mompié (Cuba), Julieta Venegas and Natalia Lafourcade (Mexico); Mala Rodriguez and Rozalén (Spain); India (Puerto Rico); Shakira (Colombia); Elida Almeida (Cape Verde); Maria Rita (Brazil); Alizée (France); Alanis Morissette (Canada); Emeli Sandé (United Kingdom) and Alicia Keys (United States).
The 2019-2020 baseball season has made a 180-degree turn. In the winter there will be a ninety-game tournament in which sixteen teams will participate: Pinar del Rio, Artemisa, Mayabeque, Industrial, Isla de la Juventud, Matanzas, Cienfuegos, Villa Clara, Sancti Spiritus, Ciego de Avila, Camaguey, Las Tunas, Holguin, Granma, Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo. (The Havana and Metropolitan teams were both eliminated.)
The Premier games will be played in the summer with the top eight teams: the four stalwarts (Almendares, Havana, Cienfuegos and Marianao) and four additional teams (Vegueros, Azucareros, Ganaderos and Avispas).* Except for major league stars, Cubans who work in different MLB circuits, the Caribbean and Asia may play. Dominican, American, Venezuelans, Puerto Rican players will also participate. One change will be that twelve players who have been recruited from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan will play in the opening tournament.
All the provincial stadiums have been updated. The fans refused to allow the Havana Reds’ owner to demolish the Latino and in the east of the capital there was a plan to build what would be the “most modern baseball stadium in the world.” The old Cerro stadium has been decked out in the latest gear — a state-of-the-art scoreboard and giant screens — and is now a place where Cubans could enjoy pure, unadulterated coffee. (Production of coffee blended with peas was phased out).
Pito Abreu and Yasiel Puig have a major gripe with the club owners because they are not allowed to play for Cienfuegos, the team of their home province. Citing extreme fatigue, the Big Show stars must watch the games from the stands.
Sixty-years after the man with the beard came to power at the point of a gun, Cuban baseball is once again part of the MLB circuit. Major League clubs spend their pre-seasons in Cuba, as they always did before 1959.
Different major league organizations recovered lost ground and reopened dozens of training schools across the island. Adolescents and young people have come down from the soccer cloud and are once again playing baseball in the jungles or on street corners. They now realize that a baseball player earns more than a soccer player.
On October 10, the opening day of the season, Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria is wearing a faded Havana baseball cap that has been in storage for six decades. He will hit the first ball, thrown by the reform-minded president Miguel Diaz-Canel, the first freely elected president since 1948. Later, the umpire will shout, “Play ball!”
Ivan Garcia and Tania Quintero
Photo: Landscape painted in 2008 by Arnoldo Nuñez Verdecia (Guantanamo, 1967). From an early age he was interested in drawing characters based on models from the surrounding countryside. A completely self-taught artist, Nuñez Verdecia is not a studio painter, preferring to follow the example of the 19th century French Impressionists. With an easel thrown over his shoulder, he goes out in search of subjects.
He is one of Cuba’s few plein air painters. Characterized by their secure, accurate and thorough brushwork, his paintings convey the greenery and freshness of the Cuban countryside. Some of his canvases are animated by the inclusion of peasants and animals. All the elements combine harmoniously to achieve an effect of visual beauty. His peasants never sit idle; they are always immersed in daily chores.
Since 1992 Nuñez Verdecia’s work has been included in exhibitions of landscape paintings at the Jorge Arche de los Arabos Gallery in Matanzas. He has also exhibited at the Victor Manuel Gallery in Havana, at Salon de Paisaje 2000 in Havana’s St. Francis of Assisi Basilica, and at a 2007 group exhibition of landscape paintings at the Hotel Melia Varadero
*Translator’s note: The last four team names in English are the Tobacco Farmers, the Sugar Bowls, the Ranchers and the Wasps.
When he is lucid, Dubiel has a photographic memory. Almost thirty years after the fact, he still remembers the names of remote villages in the Angolan jungle and can tell stories about a civil war there in which more than 300,000 Cuban soldiers and reservists were involved between 1975 and 1991.
Dubiel came back traumatized. It had been very hard seeing the bodies of comrades flying through the air from land mines and dealing with the deaths fellow soldiers whom he had befriended in the trenches.
For awhile, he received psychiatric treatment and tried to adapt to civilian life. It did little to help. Alcohol and psychotropic drugs got the better of him. He became disoriented and was soon overcome by mental illness.
A human wreck, he was abandoned his family. He survives by collecting empty beer and soda cans, which are later sold as scrap. At night he sleeps wherever he can.
Smelly and hungry, he wanders the streets of La Vibora with a jute sack over his shoulders full of empty cans. When he last saw himself in a mirror, it frightened him.
“I was a good looking guy. I was headed to university and had girlfriends. The war in Angola made me crazy. If I could, I would sue the government, which I blame for my situation. There are men like me all over the country. Thrown away and forgotten. At this point I don’t care. All I want to do is die, the sooner the better,” he says while taking a swig of harsh, cheap alcohol.
Dubiel is one of 436,000 elderly men and women in Cuba — 18.3% of the population in Cuba is over the age of sixty — in need of social services. The authorities have been unable to come up with a coherent strategy for stemming the increase in begging in the country.
In the case of Havana, the regime’s response has been to round them up before big events (such as a visit by the pope or a foreign head-of-state) and take them to an internment camp south of the city, where they are bathed with high-pressure hoses and given two meals a day
After a few days they return to once again resume their lives on the street. It was not always this way. In the 1980s it was rare to see beggars and the mentally ill sleeping under covered walkways, but actions by the Castro brothers before that led to the socialization of poverty.
Social security suddenly dried up when the state lost the generous subsidies it had been receiving from the Soviet Union. By the spring of 2015 the number of beggars and destitute retirees supporting themselves by panhandling, or selling newspapers and old clothes had greatly increased.
They are the big losers from General Raul Castro’s tepid reforms. While the world’s press was praising cosmetic changes and focusing its attention on a glamorous handful of private businesses, the elderly and homeless were being forgotten.
After forty years working as an assistant bricklayer, Lazaro — a man all skin and bones — receives a pension of 193 pesos (about eight dollars) a month. After his family kicked him out of the house, he showed up one afternoon in 2014 at a dilapidated state-run nursing home, looking for shelter.
“They told me it was not an emergency, that I should go to the police and file a complaint against my family. They said that, if I tried move into a nursing home, I would have to pay 200 pesos a month starting January 2015. My pension is less than half that. If you want to move to a church-run nursing home, you have to turn over your house, and I don’t have one. For half a century everything was the property of the state, whether we liked it or not. Now with Raul Castro we are pariahs,” says Lazaro.
Near the corner of Prado and Neptune streets — where the cha-cha-cha was born — collective taxi drivers hawk their services and clueless tourists take selfies amid the ruins. Meanwhile, a bearded old man — barefoot and dirty — sleeps on a marble bench.
“He’s from a province in the east,” says a resident of Colon, as the neighborhood is known. “He often sleeps here or near the Malecon. He eats leftovers from garbage bins and barely speaks. They call him ’the Galician.’ It’s said he was in the Angolan war. I don’t think he gets anything from Social Security.”
Fleeing poverty and a bleak future in old sugar plantations and impoverished villages of the east, thousands of people move to Havana in hopes of improving their luck.
On April 22, 1997 a segregationist law, #217, went into effect which turned people from eastern Cuba into pariahs. Faced police harassment, they erected cardboard and aluminum shacks on the outskirts of the city.
They are pockets of extreme poverty, filthy slums with no sewage or electricity. “Many of the elderly and people living on the street — those who beg or get drunk — come from the eastern part of the island. Since they are here illegally, they have no rights. They are the people who have it worst,” says a social worker.
The regime has slashed spending on social assistance. The policy now is to help only those citizens whom institutions can prove are truly in need.
The problem with this approach is that thousands of elderly and needy end up not being classified by official decree. People like Dubiel, a former “dog of war” in Angola.
Photo from Juan Antonio Madrazo Luna taken from Los mendigos negros de La Habana.
Ivan Garcia, 24 September 2015 — The best news for Celestino Cabrera, retiree, who lives in a neighborhood of low-rise houses and steep streets, was the arrival of half a kilogram of chicken per person at his area butcher shop.
“For a week now we’ve been waiting for the ration-book chicken. Lots of Pope, but zero grub,” he says with a smile while waiting in line at a ramshackle meatmarket on Font Street, in Lawton, 35 minutes from the center of Havana.
Throughout 40 years, Cabrera worked at stowing bags of sugar and wheat flour at the Havana port. His meager pension of 243 Cuban pesos (around 9 dollars) per month is just enough to purchase seven pounds of rice, five pounds of surgar, and the 20 ounces of beans that the State provides monthly via the ration book, a few vegetables, and with the rest of the money, he pays his electric bill.
To earn a few more dollars, Celestino watches cars at a farmers market adjacent to the Virgen del Camino, at a central crossroads in the San Miguel del Padrón municipality.
For Cabrera, Pope Bergoglio is a distant guy. “The Catholic Church in Cuba is a white thing. My grandparents were kids of Haitians. The religions I knew were Ñañiguism, Palo, and Santería. I respect the Pope, but his sermons are not my sermons.”
Very nearby Celestino’s apartment lives Berta Soler, leader of a faction of the Ladies in White. Every Sunday for the last five months and a half, after Mass at Santa Rita of Cascia church in the elegant Miramar neighborhood west of the capital, Soler, a woman of warm character and voice, along with three dozen other women, hoist placards demanding democracy and an amnesty law for more than 60 political prisoneres.
One wing of the Cuban opposition disagrees with the path taken by the national Church. The new scenario after 17-D*, negotiations with the US, and the goodwill between the regime and the Vatican, have not produced a democratic opening in Cuba, not even the recognition of and tolerance for differences.
Antonio Rodiles, director of Estado de SATS and member of the Forum for Rights and Freedoms, says that “at times one has the impression that a sector of the dissidence is conservative or extremist. But what it’s really about is the future of a nation which, from the way events are unfolding, is heading towards a neo-Castroism, pure and simple.”
For Rodiles, the Pope’s homilies on the Island “have been rather gray in comparison to John Paul II’s Masses during his visit in January, 1998–and in particular to those words from the then-Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, Msgr. Pedro Meurice.”
When speaking with the people who breakfast on coffee without milk and have only one meal per day, reactions to the visit by the Bishop of Rome fluctuate between indifference and curiosity. Few have any hopes and nobody expects that after his trip there will be a miracle.
If Francis’s Masses in Havana, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba were, for Catholics, messages that have invigorated and reaffirmed their faith, among other religious denominations the Pope was seen as a colonizer and intruder.
Right on the corner of Calzada de 10 de Octubre and Acosta streets stands a evangelical temple. When you ask the faithful their evaluation of the presence of His Holiness in Cuba, you will hear countless reproaches of the Vatican and the Supreme Pontiff.
“The Vatican and the Popes have corrupted religion. It is a marketing technique that counts on the endorsement of the world centers of power. History records the atrocities committed by Catholics in the name of God,” declares Luis Omar, evangelical pastor.
Oneida, a Jehovah’s Witness, traverses dozens of kilometers every morning, preaching her faith from door to door. “The government and the Vatican are on a honeymoon. The regime opens the door only to those religions that do not criticize the state of things,” she said.
Masons, paleros, santeros and abakuás, among other sects with many followers on the Island (about 70 per cent of the population profess syncretic or Afro-Cuban worship) also feel like they are not heard by the Holy Father.
“Up to now, the Vatican and the national Catholic Church have not demonstrated the slightest interest in meeting with the Afro-Cuban denominations. More than a slight, it exemplifies the typical racist supremacy of Catholicsm,” Nivaldo, a palero, pointed out.
Pablo Ordaz, special envoy of El País newspaper, observed that Francis did not transmit any message that was critical of the Castros, and avoided making pronouncements that would irritate the brothers from Birán [hometown of Fidel and Raúl Castro]. Ordaz recalled that John Paul II in 1998, and Benedict XVI in 2012, issued calls for political change in Cuba.
The official media did not publish even one line that veered from the Pope’s preachings. As flattering as they were, the articles by the state journalists were cloying and hardly believable. Even followers of the olive-green autocracy, such as Aleida Guevara–daughter of the Argentine Ernesto Guevara–who showed her differences with the government, for calling members of the Communist Party to the Holy Father’s masses.
And on Sunday, 20 September, while His Holiness preached his homily on the Plaza of the Revolution, to his left the image of Che on the facade of the Ministry of the Interior turned into a mute spectator of the weird scene.
The guerrilla fighter, countryman of Bergoglio, devoted Communist and one allergic to religion, must have been turning in his grave.
Photo taken from BBC World: The Pope arriving at a Mass on the Plaza of the Revolution, Sunday, 20 September. On one side, the image of Che that since 8 October 1993 has adorned the exterior wall of the Ministry of the Interior, the agency that runs the National Revolutionary Police and the Department of State Security, among other forces dedicated to vigilance and repression. The work, made of black cast steel, was created by the painter and sculptor Enrique Ávila González (Havana, 1952).
*Translator’s note: “17-D” is Cuban shorthand for 17 December 2014, the day Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced plans to restore relations between their two countries.
Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison
Ivan Garcia, 19 September 2015 — Right at noon on Thursday, September 17, two enormous Soviet-era KP3 trucks filled with trash were rumbling along Tenth of October Avenue towards the garbage dump on 100th Street in eastern Havana, escorted by a bulldozer and a police motorcycle.
Orestes, a community worker, has labored for twelve hours every day in various neighborhoods of the capital trying to clean up and beautify the city.
“The government’s orders are to clean up everything in the city we can. Trash pickup has been scheduled for different parts of town. There’s no shortage of resources or fuel,” says Orestes, head of a clean-up brigade that is collecting trash with a tractor fitted to haul a trailer.
Havana’s filth is legendary. Sewage spills and water leaks from broken pipes are routine. Illnesses such as dengue fever and chikungunya threaten to become pandemics.
In preparation for Pope Francis’s visit, public health workers have been fumigating in a effort to combat the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the carrier of dengue fever.
“We are working in two shifts. We’ve gotten better quality products to combat dengue and chikungunya. Cholera is under control in Havana but in Holguin, where the pope will say a second mass, the epidemiological conditions are a cause for concern,” says an official with Hygiene and Epidemiology.
In the run-up to the visit by the Vicar of Rome, the military dictatorship headed by the Castro brothers has spared no expense to alter the scenery. The facades of dilapidated buildings with holes in their roofs have received fresh coats of paint. Fifteen brigades of state-employed painters have prettied up Boyeros, Carlos III, Reina and Prado avenues.
One day before the pope’s plane is to touch down — arrival time at Jose Marti International Airport is scheduled for 4:00 p.m. — workers are putting the finishing touches on different parts of the city.
In front of the National Theater, flanked by the marble statue of Jose Marti and the hologram of Ernesto Che Guevara that covers the front wall of the Interior Ministry, a steel platform has been set up. Lined with wood and surrounded by Cuban flags, it is where the pope will celebrate his first mass in Cuba on Sunday, September 20 at 9:00 a.m.
For Angela, a housewife and occasional Catholic, the pope’s visit is reminiscent of the crowded receptions organized by the Castro regime for leaders from the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe or the “brotherly peoples” of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Employees at state institutions in the town of Boyeros have been ordered to line the parade route and cheer Francis as he passes in his popemobile. Representatives from dioceses and parishes across the country will greet His Holiness during the journey, and two-hundred pilgrims will travel from Miami to participate in the reception.
Monumental receptions for heads of state who are considered “fellow travelers” or strategic partners have always been used to grease the Castros’ engine of propaganda.
The sloppy varnish job the state and so-called mass organizations give to these receptions robs them of popular spontaneity. What might have been a festival for disillusioned young men and women planning futures far beyond Cuba, or a vision of hope for thousands of poor people, is once again hijacked by the state propaganda machine.
At least that is how Maria Luisa, a civil engineer, sees it. “I am Catholic but I think the excessive media coverage of the pope’s visit is in poor taste. The government wants us to see this as validation of its political agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anyone has suffered from political intolerance, it has been religion, in all its denominations. No matter what it is — a recital or a sporting event — the regime co-opts everything for its own benefit,” she says.
Osniel, a follower of Afro-Cuban religion, is not expecting great things from the pope’s visit. “No supreme pontiff has ever met with representatives of the Afro-Cuban religions, even though we are the majority of religious followers in this country,” he observes. “Ultimately, it’s the government that benefits most from these visits.”
More out of curiosity than faith, several adolescents and young adults from the Sevillano district in southern Havana are waiting to attend mass on September 20 in Plaza of the Revolution.
“I think the pope is a special guy. I want to get as close to him as possible. The liturgy of the mass is beautiful. And what’s more, he says things that are different from the official speeches we’re used to hearing,” notes Yonsue, a first-year telecommunications student.
Thousands of buses will be made available in Havana as well as in Holguin and Santiago de Cuba so citizens there can attend the pope’s official public events. Even people from neighboring provinces will be recruited.
Simultaneously, as the pope’s arrival draws nearer, repression has been intensifying. Opposition figures Berta Soler and Jose Daniel Ferrer have denounced the arrest of the Ladies in White as well as activists and dissidents in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Holguin, Bayamo, Santiago de Cuba and Pinar del Rio.
Cuba is a country with a never-ending economic crisis that has gone on for twenty-five years. It is a nation with a third-world infrastructure where a large segment of the population chooses to emigrate. If the prayers of the Holy Father were to bring some comfort to disillusioned Cubans, it would be a welcome development.
But it is highly pretentious to think that the pope’s words can work miracles when it comes to an elderly caste that clings to power. The Castros are experts at manipulation and risk management. They can be expected to drum up large crowds to line the red carpet for God’s messenger on earth.
We’ll see if Argentina’s Jorge Bergoglio swallows the hook.
Ivan Garcia, Havana, 21 September 2015 — Almost everyone in Cuba remembers what they were doing on January 21, 1998. Stephen, who works in a steel factory southeast of the capital, recalls that he walked more than nine miles to attend the Mass of Pope Wojtyla in Revolution Square, the sacred precinct of the olive-green regime.
“I come from a Catholic family, but when Fidel came to power they stopped going to church out of fear. John Paul II was a kind of personal liberation, the reunion with my church, God, and Jesus. Afterward, travel to the island has become fashionable for the Vatican. The visit of Benedict XVI, like that of Francis I, seemed quite bland to me. More media hype than anything else,” says Stephen, as he goes to Mass with a portrait of the Virgin of Charity, Patroness of Cuba.
After midnight on September 19th, public transport service in Havana was interrupted. Sandy and his fiancee Agnes, regular salsa-dancers in a Vedado nightclub, had to change their plans.
“It’s become routine that when the government decides to stage a march or a mass event, the buses stop running. People with money should go by taxi or hired cars that charge hard currency. It’s an arbitrary imposition. We have to stay home or walk to where we want to go,” says Sandy angrily.
Although the visit of Pope Francis was a significant event, the omnipresent social control exerted by the state toward its citizens irritates quite a few Cubans.
“They treat us like we’re first graders or mentally challenged. Good or bad, what we can do depends on the government. And a lot of us are already tired of obeying rules and regulations,” said Marcial, sitting on the porch of his home in Ayestarán, within walking distance of Revolution Square.
When the sacred choral music began on the makeshift stage in front of the National Theatre, flanked by the marble statue of Jose Marti and the 3-D image of Che on the Interior Ministry, Yordanka and several friends, with pictures of Jorge Mario Bergoglio and yellow-and-white Vatican flags, began to quietly recite The Liturgy of the Word. They were reading a handout distributed by enthusiastic volunteers from the Catholic Church.
“Of course I believe in God. Also in the Afro-Cuban deities, like almost everybody in Cuba does. My companions and I didn’t come out of devotion as much as out of compliance with ETECSA, our company. Those who attended were given a snack and a soda, which some later sold for 40 pesos,” admits Yordanka.
The presence of police officers dressed in plain clothes was evident, betrayed by walkie-talkies in hand, nervous surveillance, muscles forged in gyms, and hands deformed by the practice of martial arts. Also assembled were hundreds of members of combat associations, paramilitary organizations usually involved in acts of repudiation and beatings of dissidents.
Hours before the homily was to start, dozens of opponents of the regime and the Ladies in White were arrested or barred from attending the ceremony. Berta Soler said that on Saturday the 19th, “Martha Beatriz Roque, Miriam Leiva and I were invited to the Apostolic Nunciature, where many people went to greet the Pope. Neither Martha nor Miriam could get there. In my case, when I was on my way an unnecessarily large State Security detail detained me along with my husband Angel Moya.”
Once the greeting time had ended, the three were released. Around five in the morning on September 20, some twenty women of the Ladies in White organization, including Berta, were taken to different police stations to prevent their attendance at the Havana Mass.
“I wonder how the Pope and the Vatican will react. The dictatorial regime violated their right to grant permission to those citizens who could attend His Holiness’s events. It’s a sign, another one, of the government’s intolerance. I hope that public opinion will take note,” said Angel Moya, a member of the Forum for Rights and Freedoms.
It has become routine for the Castro autocracy to hijack religious, sporting, or musical events for their own benefit, whether it be a papal Mass or a concert by Juanes.
Designing an artificial landscape has its cost. Religious commitment is nonexistent when the people attend almost under compulsion, in order not to be “marked down” and to look good at their workplace, especially if they are guaranteed a good snack and are given credit for having worked that day.
Before Pope Francis finished his brief homily, hundreds of people began to leave to go home. And if the purpose is for all to remain well with God and with Castro, the average Cuban feels like a bit player in this story.
So the response from citizens is apathy, facades, and double standards. Pope Francisco probably saw some of that.
Exclusive video of the arrest of 3 people before the Papal Mass in Cuba
Univision Video shows the moment when two dissidents are able to approach the Pope and talk with him, are then separated from the Popemobile, and while they are subjected to being controlled, they shout anti-government slogans. It also shows three dissidents being subdued, including a woman, and finally shows the five detainees being arrested. At the time of this writing their whereabouts were unknown.
Translated by Tomás A.
Ivan Garcia, 18 September 2015 — After enjoying a strong espresso, sixty-eight year old Samuel Quijano lights a hand-rolled cigarette and looks at the sky, hoping for a sign of rain.
Quijano is the owner of a small parcel of land, located one and a half kilometers from the National Highway, where he grows vegetables, beans and has a row of tired banana trees.
“The drought is killing the land. It seems like a curse from God. There isn’t enough rain to produce good crops. The animals get sick and die from hunger and thirst. We’ll see if Pope Francis performs a miracle and brings us rain,” says Samuel, who is tending an emaciated cow as she forages on a small hillside.
The farmer has been attending Mass for a couple of years, more out of boredom than curiosity or devotion. “You have to believe in something. If not, you’re empty as a person,” he notes.
His personal history is interwoven with the political operations led by Fidel Castro. “It’s two steps forward and two steps backwards, and no one understands what’s going on,” he says. “I was a soldier in Angola. Being a Catholic back then was like being a dissident now. I really don’t know what will come out of the Pope’s visit. I’ll settle for some rain.”
Seventy-two hours before the Supreme Pontiff lands in Havana, most people do not seem to be paying much attention. The go about their business, running around town in search of food and looking for ways to earn a few extra pesos to supplement their meager family incomes.
The military regime is getting ready to welcome the Argentine pope. On Tenth of October Street, a brigade of state workers is plastering the bare windows of state-run store with posters of Pope Francis in front of a Cuban flag.
Jorge Bergoglio will be received like a Missionary of Mercy. For the past two weeks there has been a steel platform lined with wood and surrounded by red, white and blue flags standing ready in the Plaza of the Revolution.
Flanking the impromptu sanctuary is the bust of Cuba’s “apostle,” Jose Marti, and to the left of the papal platform is an outsized hologram of the Argentine guerrilla Che Guevara.
Some of the capital’s thoroughfares through which the vicar of Rome will pass have been spruced up. Carlos III Avenue and Reina Street have been given a coat of cheap paint while Havana’s majestic cathedral has undergone a thorough restoration.
“Whenever a pope visits, the same thing happens. They fix up the outsides, but the insides of houses are still screwed up. The government only cares about appearances,” says a peanut vendor outside the old hardware store Feito y Cabezon on busy Reina Street.
As usually happens in state visits that the regime wants to highlight, employees at businesses, schools and official institutions in Havana have been summoned to Pope Francis’ first Mass on September 20.
Eugenio, an ETECSA employee, has his doubts. “On the one hand, there is the tremendous heat. When the Mass is over at eleven or twelve, the sun will be baking the pavement. Meanwhile, the Pope will go off to have a gourmet lunch while everyone else will go home to heat up leftovers from the night before. Maybe I’ll go, especially since my boss told us he would provide a snack, which I can later sell for forty pesos (around two dollars),” he says.
Trucks and bulldozers hurriedly collect tons of trash and garbage piled onto city streets. Workers from Public Health carry out fumigation raids on the Aedes aegypty mosquito, the carrier of dengue hemorrhagic fever, a disease which has almost become a national pandemic.
Although Pope Francis enjoys wide popularity in Cuba, there are segments of the population which are still waiting for recognition from the Holy Father.
A large mid-twentieth century house in the La Vibora neighborhood serves as headquarters for a Yoruba association.
Ernesto Sanabria, a babaloa — an indigenous priest — with twenty-seven years experience and a member of this organization, is fanning himself with an old magazine. He ponders why, given the fact that the followers of Afro-Cuban religions like himself outnumber Cuba’s Catholics by three to one, “none of the last three popes had shown any interest in meeting with the diverse religious denominations on the island. It’s unacceptable.”
The local dissident community also feels like it is not being heard. Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, has asked to meet with the Pope. So far, she has received no reply.
The perception among dissidents is that Francis, like John Paul II and Benedict XVI, will not meet with them in order to avoid angering the regime.
Loose phrases by Pope Francisco that speak of freedom and democracy make up the politically correct part of the mass. The other is liturgy and symbolism.
For his part, Raul Castro granted amnesty to 3,522 prisoners and it is likely he will return a handful of properties confiscated from the church in the early 1960s.
Everything else will remain the same. The church will not be given a role in eduction or public health. Its periodicals will still have only a limited circulation and its social projects will still be marginalized.
Meanwhile, farmers like Samuel Quijano believe the Supreme Pontiff can, through his blessing, bring the rain the crops need. On the other side of the ring, dissidents like Berta Soler are asking the Catholic church to join in the calls for democracy and freedom for some fifty political prisoners.
But the Vatican does not do miracles. The pope is only God’s messenger on earth. We will have to keep praying.