A Longreads Member Exclusive: 
A Visit to Havana

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This week, we're proud to feature a Longreads Member Exclusive from Alma Guillermoprieto and The New York Review of Books. Born in Mexico City, Guillermoprieto has covered Latin America for NYRB since 1994, and she has also written for The New Yorker, The Guardian and the Washington Post. Her books include Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution and Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America, which includes the below story, "A Visit to Havana," about her return to Cuba for Pope John Paul II's arrival in 1998.  

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A Visit to HavanaBy Alma Guillermoprieto | The New York Review of Books | March 26, 1998 | 36 minutes (8,874 words)

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

January 23, 1998: The Pope is in Havana, and at the last moment I have flown to Cuba to see for myself what such an event might look like. Hundreds of other nonreligious foreigners like myself, I gather, have been drawn here by the same hungry curiosity: we wish to see Fidel at the open-air altar that has been set up in the Plaza de la Revolución, flanked by the images of Che and Jose Martí, kneeling as John Paul II celebrates Mass. The papal visit is expected to change many things, but much has already changed, and after fifteen years' absence from Cuba, I find it difficult to adjust to the startling new reality already evident at the airport, busy with tourists and pilgrims even at this late hour. At the luggage belt a man in uniform offers his services as a porter. Customs agents do not bother to inspect my luggage, which I have kept carefully free of any literature that might be considered suspicious. Taxis with meters wait at curbside. They expect to be paid in dollars, whose possession was cause for severe punishment only five years ago.

In the comfortable, spare hotel room that comes with my budget papal tour package, I switch on the television to CNN and catch bits of the Pope's homily during the morning's Mass in Camagüey. His Spanish is fluent, but because of his speech difficulties, which are supposed to be a consequence of Parkinson's disease, one has to pay close attention in order to understand the words. On this occasion he is discussing the tasks and problems of the young, and there is little that he has not said before. On another channel the Cuban evening news is broadcasting other fragments of the day's events: Fidel Castro, in an elegant dark suit, is seen looking alternately at the Pope and at the floor of a beautiful portal in the National University. The Pope is shuffling painfully across the entryway, and Fidel Castro is taking tiny steps to match his pace. His hands are clasped as if in prayer, and the look in his eyes seems reverential. Later I will be told by someone whom I assume to be reliable that the emotion visible in the face of this militant atheist is avowedly genuine: How, Fidel has commented, could he have failed to be stirred by the presence in Cuba of this particular Pope, given that he spent years of his childhood and adolescence attending Mass and praying for the Holy Father every day at Catholic schools?

In the Cuban leader's eyes, he has declared on other occasions, John Paul II is one of the most powerful men in the world because, unlike political world leaders, he does not have to make alliances with or offer concessions to anyone. One assumes that when he says this Fidel is wistfully including himself among the ranks of the uncomfortable concession-makers, and that it is when he compares the Pope's freedom to his own long servitude to the geriatric leaders of the Soviet Union that his admiration increases. In addition, Fidel's most sincere respect is probably reserved for those who demonstrate physical courage, and this is a virtue of which the Pope gives evidence with every crippled step. And more—my informant says that a great friend of Fidel's has quoted him as saying, more or less, the following: The Pope is an unpretentious man who receives one in private, without interpreters or aides, and listens courteously, unlike so many heads of some dipshit states (paisitos de mierda) who come here and feel they can give themselves all sorts of airs.

Originally published in The New York Review of Books, 1998. (Subscribe to NYRB.)

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