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