Of Popes and Potatoes
Can Pope Benedict XVI's trip to Havana offer any hope for the Cuban people?
January 1998 was a moment of discovery and creativity, of unprecedented scenes and audible prayers. John Paul II visited us, and in the Plaza of the Revolution — ground zero or, better yet, Ground Red for Cuban atheists — he offered a sermon in which he mentioned the word "freedom" more than a dozen times. But beyond the ritual and liturgy, at the level of the street and ordinary people, life was also tumultuous.
Jokes multiplied — a veritable avalanche of jests and satirical stories whose protagonists were both the Pope himself and then-president Fidel Castro. Just when we thought our sense of humor had abandoned us, when our smiles had been transformed into grimaces by the economic hardships of the "Special Period" — that time after the collapse of the Soviet bloc when our economy shrank by a third — our mockery and laughter were reborn.
Pepito, the eternal mischievous child of our stories, reappeared on the scene, to the surprise of those who thought he had taken off from Cuba’s shores during the Rafter Crisis of 1994. With the papal staff on its right and the olive green-clad guerilla on its left, a disheveled little head mocked the human and the divine, the ancient and the immediate.
But now, shortly before Joseph Ratzinger lands on this island, our store of sarcasm seems dry and exhausted. Only one ridiculous and trite joke has been making the rounds — a crude and stupid quip that explores the similarities between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Vatican, playing off the fact that the Spanish words for "pope" and potato" are the same. The punch line: "Yes, I know, in 50 years they both have produced only four popes/potatoes."
The reference, of course, is to the near disappearance of potato production — a topic of conversation, rumors, and even extensive reports on state television these days. But the real question is whether our satirical impoverishment is a measure of the low expectations that surround the arrival of the head of the Catholic Church — if humor, or the lack thereof in this case, is a barometer. Or, better yet, it might reflect the apathy that runs through our society, best summed up by the phrase, "Nothing is going to change, nobody is going to manage to make things change."
At the end of the nineties, Karol Wojtyla inspired us to hope. But now, in 2012, national cynicism conspires against enthusiasm. We already know, for example, that the phrase, "Let Cuba open herself to the world and let the world open itself to Cuba," never became more than the beautiful intention of the Polish pope.
In the nearly 15 years between one papal visit and the other, the Church has gained ground in the public life of our nation. But to do so its hierarchy has had to make concessions that have disappointed some of the faithful, laypeople, and even some hopeful atheists. When priests are asked about the slow and cautious steps the Cuban Church has taken, they always respond with the line, "We have survived two millennia despite worse difficulties, we cannot be rushed now."
But the life of a country, the existence of several generations of its children cannot be cast or built in periods of thousands of years, at the rhythm of an eternally oscillating censor.
John Paul II said, "Man is the primary route that the Church must travel," and the defense of human rights is the cornerstone of that premise. In Cuba, and faced with evidence that civil liberties are prohibited and demonized in other spaces, temples and seminaries need to assume a less cautious role.
The negotiations between the Cuban government and Cardinal Jaime Ortega over the release of political prisoners from the Black Spring crackdown in 2003 were expected to increase the Church’s prestige on the island, but they did not. Instead, they raised questions and criticisms, even among the families of those who were released. In part, this was because the Ladies in White, who had spent seven years exerting pressure in the streets to bring their husbands home, did not have a voice at the negotiating table. The Cuban government chose a less uncomfortable interlocutor to deliver the hostages, brushing aside the role of those who had managed to bring it to that point by the sheer weight of their denunciations.
The Pope will arrive in a country where the ecclesiastical hierarchy has expanded its facilities, opened a new seminary, and created a chair for the discussion — with very select guests — of social issues. He’ll greet a nation where no one is fired from his or her job or expelled from school for reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and where official television broadcasts Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and many other homilies.
But he will also find a cardinal who is past the age of retirement, a president who is 80, and a population with a shortage of young people because of emigration and a low birth rate. He will come at a time when the economy is becoming more flexible and the political discourse more radical, a time of commercial expectations and ideological disappointments.
His visit, undoubtedly, will not be preceded by the whirlwind of hope, curiosity, and humor that John Paul II inspired in us. But who knows. Perhaps not even that little Pepito of our jokes can anticipate the surprises Joseph Ratzinger will bring us. As for me, I dream that in the atheist and exclusionary Plaza of the Revolution, he will propose that "Cuba open itself to Cuba."