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Cuba: Is the Pope Coming?

HAVANA, Mar 15 2012 (IPS) - Festooned with lights and brightly painted, the sweet shop “La Caridad” just opened on the outskirts of Havana. One of the new breed of private businesses, the store is in the back of a modest home. A single glance at its appearance and offerings is enough to show that it has lofty aspirations.

A few blocks away in the same neighbourhood, far from the centre, is the deluxe Cuban-Italian restaurant, “Il Divino”, set out on the terrace of a huge colonial country house. Among its attractions is the fact that it houses the Sommeliers Club of Cuba and its cellar boasts thousands of wines from Italy, Spain, France, Chile, and Australia with impressive vintages and staggering prices.

Elsewhere in this same part of Havana you will find dozens of carts selling vegetables, costume jewellery, industrial objects, and light meals.

Businesses like these ­ and others legalised by the recent Cuban legislation intended to broaden and support the so-called “self-employed” and even spur them to hire workers ­ are springing up on the most unexpected corners and, apparently, even in remote areas of the country like an explosion. They are built over decades of suppression by the centralised model of socialist economics, which had always banned and fought these enterprises like an enemy (at least in terms of class).

In one of these burgeoning businesses a customer waiting for a server asked his companion something that, in that atmosphere of efficiency and the desire for prosperity, may well reflect the way of thinking now found on this island in the Caribbean: “So is the Pope finally coming to Cuba?” The other answered: “So it seems.”

The two ran up a bill of 150 pesos, about a third of the monthly salary of an average public employee.

Fourteen years ago, when the visit to Cuba of Pope John Paul II was approaching, it is possible that very few Cubans would have asked the above question. The entire world knew that the Pope was coming and how long he was staying and what his presence on the island might provoke. But between that visit and the exchange noted above, occurring not long before Benedict XVI is due on the island (from March 23-29), the minds of Cubans must be spinning faster than they can count.

A few weeks ago, when the image of Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity, completed her tour of the island, the people displayed a religious fervour, or at least a sense of curiosity, that would seem improper in a country where scientific atheism is state policy. In the streets, tiny chapels, known churches, people came together to be near the Virgin and hear the messages of the Catholic priests. Her pilgrimage ended with the gathering of a multitude in an avenue of Havana near the cathedral.

Religious feeling, even preserved in secret for many years, is an undeniable reality. But what about the visit of the Pope?

Cubans still have in many cases the same problems as they did in 1997 and 1998 leading up to and during the visit of John Paul II – and even new problems. What is different is that back then the elimination of political and social discrimination against religious beliefs was new.

Today, weighed down with mundane concerns, people seem to expect less (except perhaps a heavenly blessing) from the visit of the Pope and far more from their own ability and initiative. It is as if many have decided to take seriously the old Jewish maxim: when misfortune strikes, you must pray as if help can only come from heaven while also taking action as if that were the only solution.

The slightest easing of the socialist state’s strict limits on private initiative and the consequent possibility of finding independent ways to improve living conditions has generated far more energy and interest than the lofty questions of politics and even faith. Large numbers of Cubans seem quite uninterested in whether or not the Pope is coming or when.

These are some of the same people who, months earlier, while rushing to see the image of the Cuban virgin, were hoping to hear from Cuban authorities whether they might finally have Internet access (thanks to a fibre optic cable that seemed to have been lost at sea) or be allowed to travel freely abroad as a result of the not-yet-completed reform of certain emigration laws – among other postponed or vanished dreams.

People seem to think that the material problems of those who earn little and live badly will be hard to alleviate in the here and now with the visit of Benedict XVI. Those who earn more and want to prosper must think that supplies, taxes, and competition are their most pressing problems. Thus it is not strange that they are not boiling with expectations of the symbolic power of the pope’s visit.

Their needs are terribly mundane, for now.


(*) Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist whose novels have been translated into more than fifteen languages. His most recent work is The Man Who Loved Dogs, featuring Leon Trotsky and his assassin, Ramon Mercader, as central characters.

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