Catholicism has been the main religion in Cuba since Spanish colonization. When Fidel Castro came to power, he imposed religious restrictions, forbidding Christmas and other religious holidays. After the cold war, though, many of those guidelines were abolished and Cuban citizens were once again able to worship and attend church, albeit under the watchful eye of the government.
In 1998 the beloved Pope John Paul made a historic official visit to Cuba. It was the first time a Pope had ever visited the island. He was greeted with open arms by Castro and the nation… and I, too, was there. Some notes of mine from that visit:
Jan 21, 1998
The first half of the day was a frenzy as all of us from the press-- photographers, writers, TV & radio reporters -- shuffled from one spot to the next in government-allocated buses, assigned to take us to the Jose Marti Airport for Pope John Paul II’s arrival.
Each stop was similar to the previous one, a security check-point where press passes, camera bags, and tape recorders were hand-searched. There were metal detectors and body searches, too, and even a lazy, bomb-sniffing dog, who clearly had little to sniff out. A few news media people raised complaints about the slow and tedious process, but those complaints fell on deaf ears.
Eventually, at the last checkpoint, we were brought to a room filled with hard chairs and were to wait until they were ready to take us to the airport. By then, like most of the others, I was sweating and searched for an open seat but there were not many left. Then I saw one and dashed to it dead on. It was after I finally sat that I realized that I was sitting next to the respected Cuban photographer, Korda, whom I had met years before.
We said hello and we hugged each other. He is a heavy smoker but out of courtesy for the master I stayed planted. Korda is probably a strange name for many folks in North America but his image of Che Guevara "El Guerrillero Heroico" is a famous photo published across the planet, an image which I acquired from him in 1992 for $50.
After more than two boring hours of sitting in this hot and smoky room we were loaded again into the old buses that took us to our final stop. When the slow moving buses finally made it to the airport we were lead to the left side of where the crowd would be waiting for the arrival of the Pope. There was a scaffold ready for us and we commenced to climb it, and fight for positions to get the right visual angles.
Before the Papal plane landed, Fidel Castro, surrounded by beefy secret service, made his entrance waving at the crowd and greeting some known people and foreign dignitaries.( I was told that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was present but I didn't see him.) As Castro made his way near where the plane would be taxiing he passed close to where we were standing.
That day he was not wearing his trademark menacing-looking fatigues. Instead he wore a well tailored European suit, with a dark blue tie, which fit his 6'3" framed quite well. As he walked near us, camera motor drives went into frenzy mode firing multiple frames per second. I kept wondering if anybody told El Comandante how great it was to see him wearing something so GQ.
I couldn't hold my thoughts and cried out, "Comandante usted se ve super bien en ese traje" -" Commander you look super good in that suit." I wasn't expecting any reaction from him and thought that perhaps the noise had muffled my words. But with 71 years under his shoulders Castro was still sharp and before I finished yelling he was turning his head, saw me, and with a smile fired back, "Usted cree asi.... yo tengo que acostumbrarme a usarlo. Estoy feliz que le guste"-"You think so...I need to get used to wearing it. Glad you like it."
The heat was coming on hard and many women in the crowd were cooling themselves off with "Pope John Paul 2" street-made fans...but no amount of heat was going to deter anyone from being there. The visit of the Holy Father broke the strong chain placed by Castro 40 years earlier, when all open religious activities were forbidden. This past December Christmas had also been restored as an official holiday as a warm and welcoming sign for the Pope's five-day visit.
It was almost 4pm when a distant plane could be heard. The roar of the jet engine got louder but we couldn't see it ….until a small silvery speck came to our view, which took the shape of the Alitalia jet that landed shortly after.
When the aircraft doors opened and the pontiff's face came into view, the crowd went wild, screaming with full vigor, "Papa Juan Pablo Segundo Cuba te quiere!" -"John Paul the Second Cuba loves you!"
John Paul II descended the stairs and, like Spanish Conquistadors who arrived in America 500 years before, the first thing he did was kiss the ground. A tray of earth was presented to him by some "pioneers" school children, and then more yelling from the crowd "Papa Juan Pablo Segundo Cuba te quiere!"
Fidel gave him a warm greeting and guided the fragile pontiff to the microphone. The Pope spoke in fluent Spanish for a few minutes and called this occasion "a wonderful and long-awaited day." He spoke a bit longer and held a small prayer.
Most of Havana’s citizens, even non believers, came to see the Pope's arrival, and those who couldn't gain entrance were lined on both sides of the streets cheering and waving Cuban and Papal flags for more than 18 kms. That day, Castro made sure that all workers had the day off for this significant moment. He wanted the Pope to feel the warmth and love of the Cuban people.
The faith and devotion shown by the large sea of crowds was overwhelming and after 40 years of waiting for some solid spirituality the time was finally right. It was madness all across Havana and families traveled on buses, Soviet built Ladas, USA-made cars from the ‘50s, 3 and 4 people on a bicycle, or by moto.
Until this day, the only public official that most of this generation had listened to was Fidel, giving several-hour long political discourses with the ubiquitous revolutionary rhetoric. That day, a different canvas was painted and tears were freely flowing. Cuban eyes glowed with a new hope of better things to come. That morning, on every corner of the city, hands -- old, young , white and black -- were holding hard unto the rosary beads.
"It took me two days to make it to Havana... now I can really go to heaven... for us Cubans seeing the Pope is a miracle" An old Cuban man with a gentle voice said as tears freely escaped his green eyes. His wife was overcome with emotions and just kept noodling in agreement as she too was crying.
During the next few days the Pope will be traveling across the island and will culminate his trip on Sunday with a mass at the Plaza de la Revolucion where a large image of revolutionary hero Che Guevara will be closely watching while sharing and savoring this moment with posters of the Pope and tall images of Christ. That final day in Cuba the Holy Father will be delivering hope and inspiration to citizens from all parts of this Caribbean Island.