Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
November 24, 1996, Sunday,
Late Edition - Final
The World: Lessons on
God and Power;
Castro, the Pope and Me
By MIRTA OJITO
Mirta Ojito, a reporter on the metropolitan staff of The New York Times, left Cuba with her family in 1980.
ON the first day of fifth grade, the two young women who would be our teachers
started out by asking a question not unusual for the place and time --
Cuba in 1973 -- but one that felt a bit out of order. We were just learning
each other's names and there they were, two strangers in miniskirts, asking
who among us believed in God.
" Raise your hands," they said. "High, so we can see you."
I would like to say here that I looked around, realized that no one, not even the children I would see in catechism every Saturday, had a hand up in the air. And that I, in a moment of courage and pride, raised mine. But I cannot say that. At nine, I was not keen on things like courage and pride and principles. I raised my hand, simply and foolishly, because it did not occur to me not to. The girl sitting next to me, a friend who had lent me her white patent shoes for my first communion the year before, raised her hand, too.
The teachers, who clearly expected that no one would admit to such a thing, looked at each other and ordered, "And now, those who go to church raise your hands." My friend and I kept our hands up. And right there our fate for the rest of the year and -- as I later came to understand -- for much of our lives, was sealed.
The teachers mocked us mercilessly and said that intelligent children did not believe in things they could not see. They asked us to describe what God looked like. At the end of sixth grade, I was denied entry to the country's top high school. The blemish on my record followed me until I left the country seven years later.
In an atheist country, the self-proclaimed socialist government was working hard to mold the men and women who supposedly would help eradicate all injustices in the world. No young pioneer was supposed to harbor bourgeois ideas, like believing in God.
Religion was the opiate of the masses. And my teachers were intent on detoxifying us. "Did God," they asked us every morning of that year, "put food on your table this morning?"
" No," they answered themselves. "Fidel did."
By the end of the year, I had left the church and declared myself an atheist.
Fidel Castro was our god, and the revolution that had brought him to power 15 years before was our religion. The message, clumsily conveyed to us by the teachers, was being fed to the entire country through different means. Harshly, by sending priests to prison and labor camps. Subtly, with posters of idealist guerrillas who had died in the mountains so every Cuban child could drink a glass of milk a day (the highlighted beards and long hair were not, I believe, fashion statements but references to Jesus).
AND now, this.
Thirty seven years after he declared the Catholic Church an institution non grata in Cuba, after he expelled hundreds of priests and nuns from the country, erased Christmas from the calendar, closed Catholic schools and made it unacceptable to go to church on Sundays, Fidel Castro sat with Pope John Paul II for 35 minutes in the Vatican last week, and they chatted.
Then Mr. Castro said that as a lifelong religious man he had been touched by the meeting. Emotional, he said it was. "As a child, I never would have imagined that one day I would have lunch with cardinals and meet with a Pope," said Mr. Castro, who attended a Jesuit school while growing up in Oriente province.
In the safety of exile, his comments made me chuckle. I am no longer surprised by Mr. Castro's sudden turnabouts. But I can only imagine that, upon hearing of the meeting, every Catholic in Cuba, every person who was ever afraid to admit to having faith in God or who admitted it and suffered the consequences, breathed a little easier last week. Smiled a little wider. Felt, perhaps, vindicated. Not because they thought Mr. Castro had been converted, but because he had been forced, in his current state of weakness, to recognize the enduring power of the Catholic Church among his people.
Over the last six years, since the end of the cold war, Cubans have seen Mr. Castro preside over the slow death of the ideology he set out to impose when he seized control of the island in 1959.
For while Mr. Castro remains very much in power, he is also, almost surely unwillingly, governing a post-Castro Cuba. Circumstances have forced him to rule his people as if he and most of what he once embodied were no longer there. His longevity -- he is now 70 and has been in power for more than half his life -- has made him witness the transition of a country that, despite his physical presence, is moving beyond his creed.
PRECISELY what the country is evolving into is hard to tell. It is no longer a temple to Communism, but it is also not a democratic country. Mr. Castro has yet to hold elections, or to allow political parties or a free press. And yet events are unfolding in Cuba today in a way that nobody who lived there in the early years of the revolution would have believed possible.
To be sure, this bending of principles, this chipping away at ideology, did not begin with Mr. Castro's trip to Rome. It may have started in 1978, when economic pressures and hopes for a cozier relationship with the United States impelled Mr. Castro to allow Cuban exiles to return to the country for the first time to visit relatives. This opened a flow of cash and goods into the island that some estimate surpasses $500 million a year.
Years later, when the Berlin Wall crumbled, Mr. Castro had to make a few more concessions. He allowed entrepreneurs to open up small businesses, dollars to freely circulate on the island, and tourists to swarm to its beaches. Today, college-educated women frolic with European men in exchange for a silk scarf.
Now comes the meeting with the Pope. Given his recent talent for playing catch-up to the times, Mr. Castro is surely not inviting the Pope to Cuba because he has decided to make peace with the church, but because he can no longer afford not to and because it makes economic and political sense.
Though still weak after all the years of persecution and alienation, the Catholic Church remains the only independent entity in Cuba with influence and followers. Cubans are going to church as never before because it is one of the few places where they feel a measure of freedom -- and because, in the face of the misery in their lives, the church, as it always has, provides peace and sometimes a meal. I'm told that even my fifth-grade friend has found her way back to the neighborhood church.
Critics and supporters of the meeting agree that the Pope's visit to Cuba will undoubtedly lend some legitimacy to Mr. Castro's Government in its current state of bankruptcy, especially because the Pope is critical of the American embargo against Cuba.
But, they say, it will not save the regime, and it will not absolve Mr. Castro of responsibility for his actions, as he once predicted -- and now may pray -- that History will do.