Written by Alistair Riddle
On Saturday 19 September, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, also known as Pope Francis, touched down in Havana, Cuba. The next morning, Cuban Pioneers was there to see his first public appearance. This visit was hailed as historic, not because it was the first time a pope had visited Cuba (both Francis’s predecessors have made official visits), but because Francis is the first Latin American pope, and because of his role in facilitating the ongoing thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba. For weeks before, shops and houses across the country has been displaying posters with a smiling image of the Pope, declaring “Bienvenido Papa Francis”. The world’s media had descended on Havana. Hotel lobbies were full of journalists and cameramen doing interviews.
In the years after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, religion was suppressed, with priests and clergy often being arrested, and later the constitution officially declaring the basis of all state activity as “the scientific materialist concept of the universe”. The Communist Party of Cuba denied membership to anyone professing any theistic belief, and anyone not adhering to the official scientific atheism would face severe discrimination in employment and housing.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, Cuba was thrown into turmoil, suddenly starved of the subsidies from its socialist patron on which it heavily depended. Amongst the reforms brought in was a newfound acceptance of religion. While not outright encouraged, religion is no longer a bar to holding high office in Cuba and participation in religious activities has grown. ‘Conventional’ religions including Catholicism are widely practised across the island, with there being active communities of Jewish, Muslim and Russian Orthodox Cubans as well as Jehovah’s witnesses.
One of the most popular religions is Santeria, a syncretic mixture of African traditional religion and Catholicism, born in the colonial slavery of the 18th and 19th centuries. A common sight on the streets of any Cuban city is a newly initiated Santeria Priest or Priestess, dressed from head to foot in white as part of their year-long cleansing ritual.
In 1998 the re-legitimisation of religion was given a huge boost when John Paul II visited the island, meeting with Fidel Castro and giving mass in a packed Revolution Square to an audience of over a million. The country began to describe itself as ‘secular’ rather than atheist and Christmas was reinstated as a holiday.
Fast forward to 2015. At dawn on Sunday 20 September, a group of Cuban Pioneers, slightly less than fully fresh after a night spent in an exclusive Havana nightclub, headed towards the Plaza de la Revolución to see what we could see of the Pope. The streets were closed for miles around, lined with hundreds upon hundreds of parked buses which
are used to bring people from outlying areas of the city and surrounding provinces for mass mobilisations such as the annual May Day parade and for Hugh Chávez’s memorial service in 2013. Police and ambulances kept a watchful lookout and tanker trucks provided free drinking water.
The closest we could get to the Pope’s expected location was the opposite side of the square, some 250 metres from the temporary stage which had been set up. Presumably it was deemed inappropriate for him to speak from the raised centre of the square beneath the giant statue of Cuba’s national hero, Jose Martí, where Fidel Castro has given so many famous speeches, but the low platform provided for Papa Francis meant that only those lucky enough to have front row seats would be able to see him. The surrounding buildings were draped in enormous banners bearing images of the Pope and Jesus, but still bigger than them all was the iconic giant sculpture of Che Guevara, overlooking the proceedings.
Suddenly an announcement boomed out. ‘Pope Francis is now in the Plaza!’ A cheer went up. It soon became apparent that he was going to do a tour of the square, in true man-of-the-people style, so that as many people as possible could see him close up. He trundled his way around the fenced-off aisles in his open-sided popemobile, waving and smiling, followed by TV cameras. Once his tour was complete, the barriers were opened and the crowds allowed to move forwards towards the stage. It soon became apparent that the plaza was very far from full. Still there was an expectant air. The ceremonies began, and we waited expectantly for the kind of fulsome, inspirational voice which must surely indicate the big man was speaking.
After another half an hour, the sun had fully risen and hangovers were kicking in. We retreated further back in the square in search of shade, eventually deciding enough was enough and heading home. We weren’t the only ones leaving before the show was over. Watching the event on Cuban TV later revealed that the Pope did not have the expected charismatic voice, we had in fact heard him speak, though unfortunately hadn’t been able to make out a word of it.
Perhaps the fact that Raul Castro attended not only the Pope’s Havana mass, but also those on the following days in both Holguín and Santiago, show that the Cuban leadership and world’s media found the Pope’s visit more important than the average Cuban.