09/22/2015, 00.00
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As the pope’s visit to Cuba raises hopes, a sclerotic regime exploits it

by Tony Pino V.*
As soon as he landed in Cuba, Pope Francis issued a message of faith, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion, and mercy, urging people to be child-like. As the regime conducts picture-perfect parades, ordinary Cubans pray to Our Lady of El Cobre asking for help to leave the island to live elsewhere. The US embargo has been an excuse to stifle dissent and development. So far, Cuban leaders have not done any ‘mea culpa’.

Havana (AsiaNews) – Let us not deceive ourselves! Pope Francis’s reputation as a mediator between Cuba and the United States, which led to re-establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations, preceded his arrival to Cuba.

Although the Catholic imprint on the island is strong, Catholic practice is weak despite churches being full for Sunday Masses. The Cuban Church has grown since the 1990s after the fall of the socialist camp and the beginning of the ‘Special Period’. This culminated in Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998. However, whatever religious freedom there is, it is the by-product of circumstances because there is nothing more circumstantial than politics.

Papal holiday

For most Cubans, the pope is nothing but the “boss” (the media call him the leader) of the Catholic Church. What he says interests them to the extent that they agree with him, especially when it comes to poverty. 

According to a widely circulated joke, papal visits add extra time off to the country’s list of revolutionary holidays. Pope John Paul II’s visit gave us 25 December (Christmas). With Benedict XVI, we got Good Friday as an extra day to an already festive long weekend. Now the joke is guessing which extra day we are going to get as a tip after Francis’ visit. Since the average Cuban has no clue about the liturgical calendar, nobody knows what it will be.

But joking does not end there. Some mischievously ask if the pope's visit will improve the potato harvest and its market price. Seeing pictures of the pope always carrying black briefcase, others wonder if he has some amansaguapo [1] inside, doubting that he could have bridged the gap between a “turbulent and brutal North” and the well-organised and intelligent little island on his own.

We have repeatedly and ad nauseam told ourselves that we are a mixed or mestizo culture, a spicy stew (ajiaco), as Fernando Ortiz used to say.  However, when it comes to the cooking, we always forget that the stew’s taste depends on how we stir together the ingredients and the meat. Indeed, we miss the right taste if we let it simmer for too long and let it turn into a gooey mess. In the Cuban dialect, we might call this a Mañach, but this would not be funny nor humorous [2].

Cubans’ capacity to overcome hardship is well known, and much praised. Our people have a very umbilical sense of themselves, with a great deal of pride. They do not wait long before patching up spontaneously someone else’s hurt feelings.

Our socialism is "the most socialist" in the world; our victories, no matter how Pyrrhic, have been the most decisive. From this perspective, Cubans’ faith has not match. Our saints, when we have them, will be the saints with the most miracles in the world. The same goes for our patroness, the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, who is the one who resembles Mary the most. When the umbilical cord is too long however, we run the risk free of believing that we are free because we are not bound by any barriers. We forget that we depend on this cord for food, that we have allowed others take care of our needs, and that ultimately, if we start to fight, the cord will be used to strangle us.

Make no mistake! Pope Francis arrived in Cuba preceded by what the media of the largest of the Caribbean islands wanted to emphasise. Practicing Catholics, who are a minority, know much more about what a pope is and what he has in mind when he picks a name for his pontificate. For those in the know, Francis’ name preceded his visit because Francis is a huge name. As a Catholic, I am not surprised by what the pope said or did so far. He is fully consistent with his mission and with what he sat out to do when he chose the name of the poor man of Assisi.

I really like the simple and firm way with which he is doing things. Perhaps what I do not like is for the pope to come, confirm and offer his message and then leave. All of us would like to see his message heard, digested and applied, not explained, repeated or shredded by umbilical analysts. On this happy and fickle island of Cuba, all of us would like to see people actually talk properly, introducing themselves to one another, without bias or thought that we are chirping like Jilgueros (a songbird, see note)], when in fact we are just screaming as if we were possessed. Yes indeed, love is patient and fears nothing. For this reason, it requires clarity, transparency and humility.

The welcome ceremony

President Raul Castro’s welcome speech to Pope Francis was proof once again of our revolutionary process. He explained what was wrong in the world, and how unjust the Empire (i.e. the United States) is towards us.

Interestingly, when the two statesmen met, they greeted each other with a simple handshake and a brief exchange of words. Following this, the pope spent the rest of the time with the children, smiling at the them, hugging them.

A lot has been said about Pope Francis’ gestures, his ability to spot the most defenceless in the crowd, to speak to them and encourage them. Had he been another pope I would not dare say it, but since we are talking about this one, I think I can say that each of his every move is like a passage taken from the Gospel. In fact, in this kind of welcome, which is very much in line with the objective of his visit as a "missionary of mercy", his first message was in my opinion, ‘Become child-like’.

Talking about gestures, the emphasis on the message of thanks for the welcome took second place when he looked away from his written speech towards President Raul to say emphatically and measuredly that “the world needs reconciliation in this atmosphere of Third World War ".

No ‘mea culpa’ from Cuban rulers

Cuba has parroted everything the pope has said on the environment, the option for the poor and on immigrants. More than anything, the Cuban government likes the pope's criticism of capitalism and neo-liberalism. Evidently, such a critique is directed primarily at the great powers, and do not touch Cuba since the island does not consider itself either capitalist or neo-liberal.

Cuba continues to insist on the legitimacy of its revolutionary project and if it has not been able to go any further, it is the fault of the economic blockade imposed by the United States. Here enters the Totí, a black bird (see note). The colour should not be seen as a reference to President Barack Obama. On the contrary, he is first US president to have recognised that US policy vis-à-vis Cuba was wrong (and inflexible, I might add).

We Cubans have been hoping for so long to hear someone say ‘mea culpa’, even if that should strike a false note. It is fair to say that many revolutionary achievements were made despite the US policy towards Cuba. But one cannot forget that these policies, served on a silver platter, led to a lot of the repression endured by the Cuban people, and gave the Cuban government the means to stay in power for more than 50 years. For this reason, each government must reflect upon the pope’s messages and appeals, because when a political system stews in its own juices for a long time, what results, as we say in Cuba, is not even good for pigs.

Cuba has its own environmental, economic and migration problems, which the Cuban government must tackle. However, it is always easier to blame the "siren song of imperialism” whenever Cubans play Russian roulette by trying to sail across the Gulf (of Mexico). Cuba has never allowed Cubans the right to dissent. Some have been called vermin and filth, repudiated, ashamed, booed and stoned.

It is funny how episodes of the Cuban Revolution remain filed away, which has led to a situation in which the only the only literature we can boast about is that of exile, with its own tang of hemlock. As much as the Cuban government talks a lot about the importance of history, the Cuban people ought to have access to all versions of the story. What is more, the Cuban people would be much happier if it heard its own government recognise its own mistakes in lieu of a constant flow of self-justificatory speeches.

When a person flees his or her own country seeking something better, it is because, sadly, they feel that they cannot live in it. Still, although Cubans who reach the United States might have an advantage over other migrants, this does not protect them from nostalgia and doubts.

‘Excited scepticism’

The Cuban Church experienced the cruelty of repression, initially perhaps because it was quite rightwing, but then because of the cruelty of what was called scientific atheism. Religious beliefs were simply dismissed as pure superstition and ideological deviation. Although Cuba claims that it supports the family, it led the way in splitting families along ideological lines. Now, youth apathy is seen as a problem, and once again, it is totí’s fault.

First, we blow our horns to show off our achievements in education; then, we complain that the outside world steals our best and brightest. There is something wrong with the Cuban revolutionary process if many Cubans feel that they can live better anywhere else in the world than in their own homeland. Sadly, such views are not for publication. Even today, people are afraid to repeat them in public, and dare only whisper them because “walls have ears”. Meanwhile, we continue to live a sham. It is sad to see Cubans go on pilgrimage to Our Lady of El Cobre to ask for a chance to leave the country. It is sad to pray to Our Lady so that we can leave Cuba.

I believe a certain scepticism hides in the faith. Let us call it ‘excited scepticism’, as José María Cabodevilla [3] did. I have no doubt about what the Pope Francesco will say during his stay in Cuba, nor how he will say it. However, I have doubts about how our rulers will receive it. Once again, the people will go out in the street to give a "warm and friendly welcome." Gone are the days when Catholics watched in fear crowded events organised and authorised by the government, fearful that the next guy shouting might be a state security agent willing to nip in the bud any excess zeal that could turn into an anti-government demonstration. If John Paul II was known for bringing down the socialist camp, Francis is known as someone who believes that only faith-based peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion and mercy can prevent bringing down the world.

I do not want to be naive, but sometimes I dream that presidents will imitate Saint Francis of Assisi, and like him, go naked into the square, in a symbol of his total surrender to the Heavenly Father. To avoid total ridicule, they might wear disposable diapers under their clothes. As a symbol of good will, they can have a pair of baby bottles. Sadly, it is not stubborn presidents who bring me back to the naked reality. It was impossible for the pope’s arrival to be badly organised. It was impossible because the government organises everything.

The line-up of people along the streets waving flags and shouting slogans remind me too much of other gatherings my generation had to attend to welcome leaders like Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker. Young people rhythmically shouted ‘This is/the youth of Christ’ like their parents did when they shouted "Fidel, for sure, hit the Yankees hard!" Somehow I am led to believe that we are not as original as we thought in welcoming others. Sadly, everything was so well organised that the National TV News, in its Saturday edition, September 19, announced that the next day “public transport would resume only two hours after the meeting in Revolution Square”. I feel so sorry for the people of Havana, for the large number of people not interested in the pope’s visit, who have to pay a fortune to private drivers to go where they have to go.

Am I pessimistic? Surely not. Cabodevilla himself said that a pessimist is a person who lived for too long with an optimist. I have lived far too long in Cuba. A great friend of mine – someone who is not at all famous; someone who was a seminarian, a liberation theologian, and prisoner in an UMAP [4]; someone who is active in the Christian Liberation Movement, and an alcoholic; that is someone who is not exactly invisible (too bad he did not write his memoires) – says with great certainty that if the Cuban people today is a fan of everything American (US American, not Latin American), it is due to Fidel’s rants against the empire. The law is as old as humanity: if you want someone to do something, ban it.

A Cuban parody of Genesis would see Adam commit sin, not because the Majà (the Cuban word for the snake) gossiped about the [possibility] that he might eat the apple, but because he killed and ate the snake. Like an indigenous hunter who kills a tiger and eats it so that he could gain its potency, man learnt the devil’s trick to feign after he hunted and ate the snake in the Garden of Eden. I think this parody belongs to the Brazilian Dominican Frei Betto, and his Fidel and Religion (1985).

Notwithstanding environmental issues and movements, let us not deceive ourselves. Francis came before Francis, and that is great. If I could meet him personally, I would tell him that I cherish the words of a great Jesuit, Teilhard de Chardin, who said, "Not everything is automatically and immediately turned to good for those who seek God. Rather, everything is capable of becoming transformed into good.” I am certain that Francis, Pope Francis, would reply. "Yes, son. That is what I wanted to tell you."

Note: Jilguero (goldfinch) is the common name for a species of large songbirds. It is a very beautiful bird, with wondrous colours. Various populations of this bird were on the verge of extinction because of trafficking. Some are the product of crossbreeding canaries and the common jilguero. Some  of those raised in captivity can sing well. In Cuba, calling someone a jilguero hints to their singing and melodic talents as well as their skills with words and aptitude to get others to fall in love.

By contrast, the totí (Cuban blackbird) has a black plumage and a curved beak. It feeds on seeds and insects. According to popular belief, it signifies a bad omen and bears evil tidings. So whaterver happens, it is “totí’s fault”.

* A writer and nuclear physicist, he graduated in catechetical training, philosophical anthropology and the social doctrine of the Church at the International Institute of Theology of the Pontifical University of Comillas, Madrid. He lives in Cienfuegos, Cuba, and describes himself as a “Catholic on foot, or rather on wheels”. He is physically constrained, which gives him the opportunity to be spiritually unlimited.

[1] Amansaguapo is a powder used in Voodoo rituals reputed to get people into an amorous mood.

[2] The reference is to Jorge Mañach y Robato (1898-1961), a major Cuban intellectual, a one-time foreign minister who helped the revolution against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. After he criticised Fidel Castro, he was forced into exile and settled in Puerto Rico.

[3] José María Cabodevilla Sánchez was a Spanish writer and theologian (1928 to 2003), author of scores of books on spirituality.

[4] Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción or UMAPS (Military Units to Aid Production) were agricultural forced labour camps operated by the Cuban government.

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