Tag Archives: Havana


The Pope’s Visit to Cuba

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.Pope platform in Havana overlooked by Che

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.

Popemobile in HavanaSuddenly 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.


Crisis de Octubre

Most people have heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis – known in Cuba as the ‘Crisis de Octubre’, where, for 13 days in 1962 the world came closer than any time before or since to global nuclear conflict. So surely in Cuba, almost everyone should know about the crisis, and exactly what happened and where? Not really so. Most Cubans asked have, of course, heard about the crisis, but solid information about what happened and exactly where is nearly non-existent.

IMG_1123We thought it unlikely that installation of military hardware on such a scale would leave no physical trace, so Cuban Pioneers set out to see what could be found.

The first stop was the town of Bejucal, about 20 km south of Havana. Our driver had already taken us to a couple of unusual spots well off the tourist trail in his red 1950s Chevrolet, so he didn’t bat an eyelid when he was directed him up a very steep road leading to a hilltop overlooking the town. On the way up the hill we passed some mysterious caves cut into the cliff at the side of the road. Eventually we passed what looked like a guard hut, long since boarded up. Then there was a large concrete five-pointed star, emblem of socialism, on a traffic island in the middle of the rarely-used road. A small statue of Cuban national hero Jose Martí had been recently added. There was a series of rather dilapidated buildings which appeared little different to those found in any other Cuban town, except that there was little logical reason for them to be on a hilltop rather than in the valley below. There were two- and three-storey apartment blocks with children playing outside, and another building which looked like it had once been offices on the upper floor, with car parking at ground level. This had once been a Soviet military command post for the bunker where the nuclear warheads had been stored in 1962, pending an order being given for them to be sent out to the launch sites. But nothing here confirmed the former purpose of the place.

On the other side of the valley we had more luck. After following the winding old road back towards Havana for a few kilometres, we turned off onto an unpaved and very rocky track. I fully expected our driver to declare that he was going no further – the 1950s cars in Cuba are precious and are treated with respect befitting their age. But he continued, carefully steering around the largest of the holes in the track. At the first turning, we set off on foot for the last hundred metres. We were looking for a particular design of fence, which had shown up on the photographs taken by CIA spy planes. It turned out we had come down the wrong track, leaving a few Cuban farm workers wondering what on earth had brought a group of gringos to their front doors.

IMG_1125The next turning proved more fruitful. After a few hundred metres we came to a gate which matched the characteristic angle of fence posts in the photos taken more than 50 years before, by F-8 Crusader reconnaissance pilots risking anti-aircraft fire flying only 1000 feet above the Cuban landscape, with little chance of a successful bailout if they were hit. Ironically, this fence was what had put the USA’s intelligence analysts off the scent of the 1-megaton Soviet warheads. Poring over the thousands of feet of film in a secret facility in Washington, they had initially considered this as a possible location for the warheads, but had discounted it due to the single fence and lack of obvious security, instead believing that the nuclear components were being kept near the port of Mariel, 50 km away.

Our driver parked up and once again we continued on foot. On a previous visit to this site, the residents of the nearest house had said that yes, many years ago there had been something military here, but no, there was definitely no bunker or anything similar nearby. We assumed this to be true, and expected to find nothing but a few farm buildings, once again giving no indication of their former purpose. We turned away from the simple farmhouse buildings, heading downhill and through a gate in a barbed wire fence which had been strung across the overgrown track. The track seemed to disappear into the jungle, but we pushed on, before nearly stumbling across a three metre high opening in the hillside.

It was immediately clear that this was something which had to be checked out, so we pushed aside the branches and headed inside. In front of us was a concrete tunnel built into the hillside, stripped bare of all but painted revolutionary slogans, but perfectly

IMG_1140Here was ample space for storage of the warheads, which in conjunction with the R-12 medium-range missiles had given the Soviet Union for a few short days in 1962 the capability to drop a bomb with the power of 70 Hiroshimas on Washington DC and at the very limit of the rocket’s 2000 km range, on downtown New York City.

It was not until long after the crisis was over, and indeed the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, that the location was revealed. If the CIA had correctly identified the site back in October 1962, it’s possible that President Kennedy would have bowed to ressure from his generals and ordered a pre-emptive air strike, or even a parachute drop of elite troops to try and destroy the warheads. How Moscow would have responded is anyone’s guess, but it’s likely that things would have escalated very quickly. We had just been to the spot which was the most probable location for World War III to have started. As we headed back to Havana for a round of cold mojitos, we considered it rather a good thing that Kennedy and Khruschev had managed to knock their heads together and avert armageddon.