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.