Friday, August 11, 2006

A matter of prayer

The President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, wants you (and me) to pray for Fidel Castro’s quick recovery and return to office. According to Chavez, his pal and mentor is fighting for his life. And you know, he needs a little help from God.

An interesting situation, to say the least, given that relations between God and Castro have been pretty bumpy for quite some time.

First, some history.

Castro and the Catholic Church go back a long, long way: In his youth, Castro was a boarder at one of Cuba’s most famous Catholic colleges, Colegio Belen in Havana, back in the days when Cuba had Catholic colleges. In 1948, when he married his first and only publicly recognised wife, Mirta Diaz-Balart, he did so in the one Catholic Church in Banes, the bride’s home town.

Then, when the man who would rule Cuba for 47 long years launched an ill-fated attack on the Moncada barracks in July 1953 and was taken prisoner, priests close to the Castro family were instrumental in ensuring Castro got a fair trial rather than a just a bullet to the back of the head.

And when Castro came down from the Sierra Maestra mountains in January 1959, entering Havana as the conquering hero he was, he and his fellow barbudos proudly talked about their religious beliefs, some even sporting visible crucifixes. The rebels counted among them several priests.

Well, the honeymoon didn’t last long.

Within months, all foreign priests (most of them from Spain), were labelled “fascists” and expelled back to Madrid, and all Catholic properties – from schools to newspapers to radio stations – were confiscated and closed down. They remain closed to this day.

In due course, Easter would be abolished (it was renamed Playa Giron Week to celebrate the Bay of Pigs victory). Then Christmas was abolished so Cubans could spend more time cutting sugarcane for the Revolution. And going to Church became a counter-revolutionary or subversive activity, with all Catholics barred from joining the Communist Party – the only legal party on the island.

Religion was The Opium of the People, Castro declared, quoting Marx. Karl, I think.

And although communist Cuba didn’t go as far as communist Albania – which declared itself an atheist State – anyone brave or silly enough to practise their religion (no matter what type), became immediately suspect. A gusano.

When I was growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, my brother and I attended the same Catholic Church where Castro had got married decades earlier in Banes. That’s the Church you see in the picture at the top - just opposite the Parque Dominguez, with its statue of the Cuban independence hero, Jose Marti.

We were there against our will. Because our mother insisted, even though neither of my parents were or have ever been particularly religious. She thought it’d be good for us boys to get a different perspective on things. We thought she was crazy.

Eventually, attending Mass on Sundays became less of a chore for me. The dark, cool and utterly peaceful space inside this small town Church became something of a refuge from the harsh sun and the heat and all the talk of Revolution and invasion and imperialism outside.

I am sure some of the appeal was due to Father Emerio Sanchez. To my amazement, I was to discover that the nuggety, welcoming, no-nonsense parish priest at Banes had been a barbudo up in the mountains with Fidel - and was said to be still close to the Castro family. But you will need to buy my book, Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro’s Cuba, to read more about it (man does not live by blog alone ...).

It was tough at first, this going to Church business, and not just because of the inevitable ridicule you’d cop at school from kids who weren't made to go to Church. On Sundays, just as Mass was about to start, the cinema on the other side of the park – Teatro Heredia, one of just two cinemas in Banes – would kick off its matinee program, the highlight of the week. Right on cue, the screen would light up with everything from pirated American cartoons to old black and white serials with names like The Shadow.

Inside the Church, where it was quiet, I could often hear clearly the music and the other sounds coming from the screen and sometimes, if I listened carefully, even the sound of laughter from those of my school friends whose parents were good revolutionaries and never, ever, sent them to Church. Unlike mine.

It would take decades for Castro to gradually improve relations with the Church, culminating in the once-unthinkable visit to Cuba in 1998 by the late Pope John Paul II. Today, the Church is kind of tolerated by the regime - but no more - and only on the condition that its bishops and priests keep right out of politics.

So, Hugo, I hear what you are saying. Let me sleep on it …


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