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Wednesday, January 21, 1998 Published at 17:07 GMT

image: [ Tom Gibb in Havana ] Pope in Cuba: clash of the titans

Tom Gibb
Reporting from Havana

Pope John Paul II is visiting the Communist-ruled Caribbean island of Cuba. The visit is attracting huge media attention throughout the world, with some 3000 journalists descending on the capital, Havana, to cover it. Headlines have appeared in the United States, talking about the clash of the titans, with a meeting of two representatives of opposing ideologies at the end of an era. As Tom Gibb reports from Havana, the Papal visit is also the talk of the town there:

Tom Gibb in real audio (4'37)
It always amazes me in Cuba how quickly jokes about current events spread. None of this is through the sombre voice of the media, which is strictly controlled by the Communist party and steers clear of anything sniffing of political satire. Rather someone somewhere makes up a good joke and then, within days, it spreads by word of mouth all over Havana. In a country where freedom of speech is strictly limited - it provides an outlet.

Ever since Fidel Castro went to Rome for the first time to meet the Pope and invite him to the island, just over a year ago, Cuban joke makers have been working overtime. Within a few days a Cuban friend, asked me if I knew what had been said inside the Vatican. The Pope, he told me, asked Fidel if he couldn't do something special to mark the historic importance of the visit. "I know," says Fidel, "I'll give all Cubans a dozen eggs in the ration book the month you arrive." "Well, that's very nice," says the Pope, "but surely you can do something a bit more significant than that." "All right," says Fidel, "how about a chicken for every Cuban. That's eleven million chickens." "Well, actually," says the Pope, "I was thinking of something with real meaning. Couldn't you tell everyone that God exists?" "Oh no," says Fidel, "I can't say that because he doesn't." "So what's the problem," says the Pope, "neither do the eleven million chickens."

Fidel Castro was actually asked the other day whether he believes in God or not. Like all good politicians, he refused to be drawn. It's a trick question he said, because if I say I believe in God, then I will upset those who don't.And if I say I don't believe then I'll upset believers.

Until the constitution was changed six years ago, Cuba was officially an atheist state. Soon after the 1959 revolution there was a great deal of conflict with the Catholic church. The strength of Catholicism was mostly in the upper classes, many of whom fled to Miami. The government accused the church of aiding counter-revolutionaries and shut down Catholic colleges, expelling foreign priests and religious orders. Believers were actually barred from many professions or from studying at universities.

But this doesn't mean that all Cubans were atheist. Many Catholics simply hid their faith. And the popular African beliefs, the Santeria cults as they are called, continued in people's homes as normal. These are a strange mixture of African religions and Catholicism. The slaves brought to Cuba continued to worship their gods, but syncretised them with Catholic saints to avoid persecution. Santeria in Cuba is now massive - and it's at the centre of what many Cubans think.

Much of Santeria has to do with predicting the future and individual destiny through ceremonies which contact the guiding spirits of ancestors and saints. Many of these ceremonies involve animal sacrifice. One can identify its followers because they wear brightly coloured beads and sometimes Catholic rosaries as well.

There has always been a close tie with Fidel Castro's revolution which had the mass support of the poor where Santeria was then strongest. Many of the revolutionaries who came down from the Sierra Maestra in 1959 wore Santeria beads.

Fidel Castro is also credited by many Santeria followers as someone touched by destiny. In the early 1960s Cubans watched on television when at a political rally a white dove landed on Fidel's shoulder, apparently a sign of someone who is chosen by the Gods.

I've had many people tell me that the reason why no major hurricanes have hit Cuba since the revolution is that Fidel has power to divert storms. When Hurricane Lily threatened last year, television showed Fidel everywhere, going to the place where the storm was heading. And sure enough it always swerved away at the last minute, missing Havana and the country's main tourist resorts.

Fidel, himself, has never hinted that he believes in any of this. But he has certainly heard the stories, sometimes joking about them and perhaps, sometimes using them to bolster his image. I've often wondered whether he also hears the jokes on Havana's streets, most of which are inevitably about him.

I got some inkling this week that he probably does - at least the one about his conversation in the Vatican. While we still have no idea about his personal beliefs, a neighbour came round to tell me, extremely excited, that a chicken for every household will be on the ration menu this month because of the Pope's visit.

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