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.