Feature Travel Archives

Cuba - After the Pope's Visit

By Patricia Keegan

Changes in Cuba may be in the embryonic stage, but the impact of Pope John Paul’s visit has beamed a fresh, new light into the hearts of the Cuban people. Yes, more people are attending church, but for the first time, as one Cuban said, he sees signs of Cuban unity as pro- and anti-Castro factions express confidence in the future of their country.

As viewers around the world watched the meeting of Pope John Paul II and President Fidel Castro, they began a week-long immersion into the public dialogue between seemingly disparate ideologies. Nonetheless, the two connected in unimagined ways, and the people of Cuba and the United States will benefit through the Pope’s message and through the intensive media examination of Cuban society.

Pope John Paul connected with the people of Cuba on a human, caring level that was palpable to them. Despite their experience in a dictatorship, they are not a closed or somber populace. The Pope’s visit to Cuba was timely, for although this event had been in the wind for 15 years, it was providential that it should come at this time of immense hardship for the Cuban people.

A globalist who believes that no nation, group or individual can stand securely without moral underpinnings, the Pope told the people of Cuba, and those listening around the world, that we are experiencing a new era in which no nation can live alone.

“As such the Cuban people cannot be deprived of ties with other people which are necessary for economic, social and cultural development, particularly when the isolation provoked indiscriminately affects the population, aggravating the difficulties of the weakest with regard to basic needs like nutrition, health or education. Everyone can and must take steps for a concrete change in this sense. May all nations, especially those who share the same Christian heritage, unite to overcome obstacles, so that the Cuban people, the protagonists of their history, can maintain international relations that favor the common good. In this way they will contribute to overcoming the anguish provoked by poverty, both material and moral.”

In his reference to the almost 40 year U.S. embargo against Cuba, the Pope said, “Restrictive economic measures imposed from outside the country are unjust and ethically unacceptable.”

During NBC’s coverage of the Pope’s visit, a news anchor was heard asking why so many American journalists go to Cuba and seem to love it. The answer is not easy to articulate. Perhaps it is the combination of all attributes of the Cuban personality. They are good conversationalists with a lively oneness, warmth and intelligence. Their literacy rate is 98%. Innocent of material gains, they have developed a generosity of spirit radiating against the backdrop of a stunningly beautiful country. For the observer, it carries its own pathos, because, as the thornbird knows, this innocence will die.

This was my third visit to Cuba, the second in two years, and I was heartened by the indomitable spirit of the Cubans, still hanging on to their last thread of hope for a brighter future, and still working hard at creative survival.

What was disheartening was the increased exploitation of young Cuban girls by the “extranjeros,” men from other countries, luring girls with the reward of the almighty dollar. Prostitution did not exist in Cuba after the revolution, but has been steadily growing in the past few years.

With the two-tiered economy, tourists with dollars and Cubans with pesos, there is great incentive to get dollars. The average monthly salary for a doctor, economist or other professional is just $20. Rent, education and health care are taken care of by the government.

Entrepreneurship is operating at some obvious levels, but only by special license. Free lancers are sometimes ignored, but sometimes clamped down on by the authorities. Some operate successful restaurants in private homes, called “paladares,” where the food is home cooked and served by the family. Courageous car owners, some with beautiful antique cars, others driving old jalopies with cardboard replacing window glass, offer fares much cheaper than tourist taxies, but they could be stopped and asked to produce their license.

The purpose of this visit was to continue to explore the culture and to see if there was new activity in Catholic churches.

A Tradition of Artistic Endeavor

Cuba holds a prominent place in the world of arts, ranging from the National Symphony orchestra to the National Ballet of Cuba to a showcase of museums and galleries, some of the best in Latin America. Havana has almost 40 museums and at least 14 major art galleries with an incredible array of art, sculpture and photo exhibitions. An outstanding museum is the National Arts Museum, home to a collection of both classical and modern art featuring works by Renoir, Picasso, Rodin and other masters. Cuban music, popular all over the world, flows in the Cuban blood, guitars, violins and pianos. You need walk only a few blocks in Havana before encountering an outdoor cafe with a lively trio, or becoming part of the street audience for a salsa band.

I walked to the Museo de la Revolucion, housed in the former presidential Palace, to see the complete exhibition of the revolution, with maps, weaponry, photographs, tanks and warplanes, and the Granma, the 38-foot wooden cruiser that Castro and his small band used in their near-disastrous seven-day crossing from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 to begin the insurrection.

I stopped at a local Papeleria (stationary store) where I met young Jorge, who asked me about Newport, his uncle’s home. As we spoke, I heard church bells ringing and decided to stop in at the church around the corner. Jorge volunteered to come along as my impromptu guide.

The priest was going from pew to pew blessing tiny infants held in their mother’s arms. Several small girls wearing long, lace dresses and white bonnets played among the flowers on the altar. Nobody seemed to mind. The priest talked about what it meant to be baptized. I asked 20 year-old Jorge if he had been baptized.

“No,“ he answered. Then he whispered, “You know, when I was fifteen years old everything was going wrong in my life. I was married, but I felt a deep emptiness and a burning inside of me to know more about God.”

“What did your parents say,” I asked.

“My father loves me, but he doesn’t believe in anything. My mother just works all the time.”

The priest poured holy water on the babies’ heads, blessing them as “children of God, radiating forever in the light and presence of Christ which bring peace.”

As the service ended with a chorus of wailing infants, the serious-faced Jorge asked if I minded waiting while he spoke with the priest. He stood in line at the altar. After speaking with him he returned to tell me that the priest would see him on Monday to talk more. He appeared happy.

Jorge has sugar diabetes and has to inject insulin twice a day. Insulin, like most drugs, is not easily accessible in Cuba, and presents a real challenge to his family.

An Artist’s Life

At the Officina del Historidades de la Ciudad, (office of the city historian), I came upon an exhibition of two wood sculptors, Emilio Penalver and his teacher, Osvaldo Llins. On display were sensitive wood carvings of human figures. A contemplative figure bowed in deep thought. “Meditation” by Llins, seemed to project its own quiet energy, drawing you into his thoughts. Penalver, his protege, was able to capture the delicacy, refinement and supple energy of the ballerina in a piece approximately two feet high.

I was especially fond of his abstract carving of a ballerina who stood on her toes, leaning backward while holding a fine veil, as though in motion, above her torso. An artist standing nearby told me that the figures they create spring from their imagination, without the benefit of models or photos. Some actually look as though they could breathe.

Both artists were kind enough to meet me the next day. Smiling Emilio said, in confidential tones, tinged with irony, “I am a black man with muscles; when people look at my ballerinas and then at me, they can’t believe it’s possible that they are my creations. When they come to see me at work in my studio, they say, ‘This is incredible!’ “

He said the life of an artist in Cuba is not bad. “My wife is a teacher, we have two children, but I work day and night. When I’m working on something particularly exciting, I forget to sleep and eat. I first became interested in ballet as a child. I didn’t know at the time that the music I heard, lying on the floor, was for the ballet. My first experience at a live ballet was a thrilling occasion.”

In describing the inner life of an artist, Emilio says, “I believe the artist must be a free soul finding his own way to the ultimate creation, rising above all else to find individual satisfaction.”

Ups and Downs of Havana

One of my symbolic barometers of economic health in Havana has been the beautiful Hotel Nacional. During its heyday in Batista’s time, this center of activity was the hotel of choice for the wealthy, including the mafia. Movie stars, luminaries, the British Royal family and Winston Churchill all rested noble heads on its crisp linen pillows.

On my first visit in 1992, the Hotel Nacional had just finished a renovation and grand re-opening celebration with fireworks and a visit from Castro. I thought it was destined to be the flagship of Havana. This time, I visited the Nacional from my humble abode at the St. John’s hotel, ($22 per night and just across the street).

Outside, the Nacional is an architectural masterpiece, while inside its refined and polished ambience of mahogany, marble and crystal reflect a lively, bright-faced, efficient staff. Previously, I would take the lift to the ninth floor, climb the spiral staircase, and stand in the cupolas to look across Havana to the sea. It was a spectacular sight at night. But on return visits, I find the sparkle and special feeling are somehow missing. My rooftop view was closed waiting for a new restaurant to open.

Faded Glories

The Spanish colonial architecture of Havana is both stunning and tragic, a constant reminder of the time warp this nation is experiencing. In some areas you see a magnificent house next door to one literally tumbling into disrepair. The lack of consistency is surprising, especially in the more beautiful areas.

The Miramar area is filled with many restored mansions graced with columns and balustrades on lovely tree-lined streets. Some are rented to foreign corporations, and others serve as kindergartens, clinics and clubs. The long blocks of Spanish colonial facades that face the sea along the Malecon appear to be in an early stage of restoration. When this facelift is complete, and repainted in lovely pastels, the ball gown will be in place to welcome the new century.

Havana Viejo (Old Havana), a UNESCO World Historic preservation site, is one of the most intriguing old sections of any city in the world. It reminds me of Barcelona’s old town with its ability to entice you further and further down narrow, cobbled streets into an atmosphere of adventure. Around each corner, a street leads to something unexpected, sometimes a major pot hole, or a dead end, sometimes a lovely art gallery or bookstore or a plaza with craftsmen selling their wares.

Among these pockets of great charm stands the beautiful San Isabel Hotel, originally the Casa de Joaquin Gomez, built in 1835 for a wealthy merchant. If these luxury hotels keep appearing, and a city-wide restoration continues, Havana could become the destination of choice for the rich and famous. The cost to the NBC staff staying at the San Isabel during the Papal visit was $150 per night. It’s a prime example of the city’s potential for elegance and graceful design, but only the rich can stay at these prices.

Up and Coming Varadero

Varadero, Cuba’s tourist mecca, is about 140 kilometers (two hours by car) east of Havana. This coastal resort area is one of the most fabulous in the world. Each five-star hotel seems to outshine the next, but tranquility and relaxation prevail. Spain’s Grupo Sol has four luxury hotels under the Melia trademark. Three of them, the Sol Palmeras, Melia Varadero and Melia Las Americas, are adjacent and take up a mile of prime beachfront. Visitors to any of these properties are full of praise, not only for the service, but for the quality, attention to detail and excellent food. Daily flights from Spain supplement the variety of food which makes their buffets famous.

Aspirations of Young Artists

An evening at either the National Symphony or the Cuban National Ballet opens up another rich, refined dimension of Cuban culture. The Symphony, which first performed in 1960, has a repertoire ranging from 17th-century works to the most contemporary creations, emphasizing Latin American and Cuban composers.

It was my second visit to the Cuban ballet, which for many reasons is heartbreakingly beautiful. Following in the footsteps of the great prima ballerina, Alicia Alonso, many young Cubans become world famous. One of the outstanding students I saw last year, Rosario, is now dancing in Switzerland. The skill and discipline of these non-professionals is bringing deserved recognition in Europe and other parts of the world.

These young faces, so delicate and earnest in expression, mask many obstacles including the quality of the musical accompaniment. On both my visits, they danced to scratchy music from 1950’s era equipment. There were tense moments when the music faltered, throwing the dancer’s timing off. Once again, I witnessed the Cuban spirit at work as the ballerinas ignored all the annoyances and concentrated on the perfection of the art over which they had control.

What about Cuba’s Future?

Many who visit Cuba for the first time are appalled by the state of the old buildings and the overall feeling of poverty. But the glass is half full. Shabby, worn out and neglected though it may look, its wealth lies in an industrious, well-educated, creative populace. Combine that with a release from both self imposed and U.S. imposed bondage, and the world would see a real winner. I think of Professor Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” who saw much more in Eliza than her unkempt facade. I look forward to Havana’s gradual transformation into a beautiful, independent, capital city.

A Papal Legacy

The purpose of the Papal visit was one of reconciliation. Christians throughout the world know what that means. The essence of reconciliation is forgiveness, and that is always difficult. The Cubans who left during the Revolution have to look, not only at what they have suffered and lost, but what their relatives who stayed have suffered.

This is about love. The struggle for sovereignty, the central focus of Cuba’s survival throughout history, until this day, must be acknowledged. Terrible things have happened to innocent people. By lifting the Helms/Burton embargo against Cuba, the U.S. Congress has the power to make life more livable for the Cuban people.

If the embargo was enacted to change the political situation by stressing the system and burdening the people, it has not worked. Periods of near starvation have not lead to any sign of a popular movement to overthrow Fidel Castro.

This is a situation where not one drop of blood should be shed. An uprising against the government could bring bloodshed. It is a primitive, archaic method of changing a system and not worthy of the American people.

We are neighbors, and in this world of post Cold War enlightenment, isolating Cuba is an anomaly. Our reconciliation with Vietnam and our booming business with China, a communist country, make our policy of punishing Cuba and those who trade with her somewhat of a mystery. Ordinary citizens of America and Cuba want both governments to show flexibility so that Pope John Paul II’s call to reconciliation can begin. This is what Christian solidarity is all about.