What Would the Virgin Do? / Wendy Iriepa and Ignacio Estrada

Almost 400 years after Juan de Hoyos, Rodrigo de Hoyos and Juan Moreno — the three Juans, as the Cubans affectionately called them — saw the appearance of a virgin that held a baby Jesus, while they rowed their little boat in the middle of a storm, I had the blessing of seeing the statue raised in honor of her in El Cobre, close to an old copper mine in a towering church on top of a hill in the outskirts of Santiago, a place I visited on a pilgrimage in 2002.

I was reporting from the island during a month-long trip, but the dozens of poor children fathered about a half mile from the church, where the tourist buses stopped, thought that I was a foreigner. “Auntie, auntie, here, here. Just two dollars”, they said while they tried to sell me a piece from their selection of wooden images of the virgin, the size of a hand or of a toothpick, within a crystal capsule.

My Cuban friend who had brought me there gave me a ride. “Too expensive,” he said. “I’m going to buy some with Cuban pesos, once you’re further in, so that you can give one to my cousin in Orlando”.

On the inside, the Cubans and the tourists mixed. One girl was celebrating her 15th birthday, dressed in a precious white outfit, which someone had probably sent her from Miami, and bearing a veil in a procession.

In the sanctuary, the small image of the virgin, dressed majestically in gold above a white pedestal, brought me back to the memory of the only Virgin of Charity of Cobre which I had seen, a copy brought by the exiled from Cuba in 1961 and that adorned the Ermita which was in the Bay of Biscayne next to Mercy Hospital, in Coconut Grove. I was in Santiago to report, but my Cuban heart told me to pray.

I was in the middle of my journey through the country where I was born, already under the careful watch of a Cuban government agent who had made it clear to me, without saying a word, that he had been following me from the Havana airport, where I had taken the flight to Santiago. I took out my composition book of notes and my pen and wrote down a prayer, in order to leave it among the thousands of other prayers that had been deposited in a prayer box over the decades. “Give them freedom,” I wrote. “Save Cuba, beloved Virgin.” On both sides of the pillars that encircled the virgin, there were framed medals of soldiers, young and old — from cadets to colonels — who had left her their honors and tributes. In this small space there was a gleam of freedom of expression. On one side there were the medals and badges of the Cuban soldiers from before the revolution, the men of Fulgencio Batista’s army.

On the other side there were the medals and badges of the revolutionary soldiers of Fidel Castro. They also sought comfort in Her during the ’50s and many of them still do to this day. And there, on top of a table directly below that setting, there was a placard fixed to the wall asking for the liberation of the political prisoners, among them was the plea that Fidel Castro had once sung, “Virgin Mary, for the freedom of the POLITICAL PRISONERS,” it said in big capital letters.

The Cuba of Castro, always a place of contradictions, had spent 52 years imprisoning people whose only crime had been that they don’t share in the political views of the revolutionary government, which one man governs in the name of so-called socialism. Fidel read books, he ate well and he amused the newspaper journalists from his jail cell during his short stay in prison under the Batista regime. It’s not like that for the thousands of Cuban men and women who have been imprisoned during the half century of dictatorship: their rulers didn’t even allow the International Red Cross or a representative of the United Nations to visit the ruinous prisons on the island, that now add up to hundreds.

That Thursday in Miami, the Cuban-Americans would commemorate the 50th anniversary of having received a replica of the Virgin, brought from the Guanabo locality, for more than 30,000 exiled Catholics who filled the abandoned Bobby Maduro Stadium in order to celebrate the feast day of their patron. I say commemorate because it is difficult to celebrate the tyranny that brought so many people here.

However, not a single day goes by where the topic of current Cuban politics is talked about: more arrests of Cuban citizens who dared to speak out on the island; a Pablo Milanés concert in Miami, an advocate of Castro; the leader of the Church in Cuba, who does not appear ready to take a stand against the terrible violation of human rights, but instead is only willing to help the communist regime put those prisoners on a plane to Spain, or the hardened hearts of exiles, who they call on to stop all of the family visits to the island, without which I ask myself: What would the Virgin do?

I believe that people of good will cannot accept the politics between the United States and Cuba and still share in the same objective of liberty. Some religious Cubans – Catholics, Protestants, and Jews — have sometimes arrived at the conclusion that Cuba is being punished by a higher power for the stubbornness of their town. Forgiveness? Reconciliation? Some sort of recognition of this sin being made by their oppressors? Neither side wants to surrender.

The Virgin of Charity, who appeased the waters of the Bahía of Nipe, as the story goes, saved three youth in 1604. More than 500 years later, after suffering for 52 years under the government of a single man, the Cubans await their grace.

Taken from: Myriam Márquez. The New Herald

Translated by: Megan Jantsch

February 27 2012