Jorge Mario Bergolgio’s trip through Santiago de Cuba has left many of the faithful frustrated as they were not able to hear his homily in a public square, as had happened in Havana and Holguín. The Pope’s visit to this region consisted only of a Mass for invited guests at the Sanctuary of El Cobre, and a gathering at Santiago de Cuba’s cathedral on Tuesday, but without a massive public presence. About 1,100 people, including Raúl Castro, attended the Mass in the Basilica, while another two thousand followed it on the giant screens outside.
The eleven miles separating El Cobre and the provincial capital of Santiago de Cuba were teeming with security guards, vehicles, and the faithful invited to hear the homily during the early morning hours on Tuesday. Many of these arrived at El Cobre in the early hours after midnight in order to avoid possible transportation problems.
Vendors who typically situate themselves on the sides of the road selling wooden replicas of the Virgin of Charity, flowers, and stones with specks of copper,* were not allowed to open their stalls last Tuesday. In their place, some of the local faithful lined the road to greet the Pope as he departed the Sanctuary in direction of the city.
It had been almost two weeks since it last rained in Santiago de Cuba. The last time it did so it came down as a weak and unimpressive drizzle. It was very different than the rain that greeted Pope Francis upon his arrival to the city. The people of Santiago de Cuba, who are in so much need of hope, saw this downpour as a good omen. Still, a lot more than rain is needed for a miracle to happen in these parts.
Restorations in honor of the 500th anniversary of Santiago de Cuba – celebrated last July – are still fresh. Consequently, the Bishop of Rome found an embellished city center, and a thoroughly restored cathedral. Work took two years, and included the renovation of the interior, the two bell towers, the parish house, and façades.
During the last few weeks the preparations for the Pope’s arrival have gone beyond the Catholic community, involving government, Communist party, and provincial agencies, as well as the security services. The latter were in charge of warning activists and troublemakers that they were not allowed to approach the places the Pontiff would be visiting.
Santiago de Cuba’s homeless and beggars were also hidden away until Pope Francis concluded his visit to the city, “ although he has said we are all children of God,” sarcastically remarked Pablo, a homeless 65-year-old retiree, who spends his nights in the area around Céspedes Park, Santiago de Cuba’s main square, where the city’s cathedral is located. Near the bus station he told us, “I’m in hiding these days because I don’t want to get picked up.”
José Daniel Ferrer, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), reported to this newspaper that hours before the arrival of Pope Francis, the detention of around fifty activists, and that “service had been cut off to many cellphones.” For this dissident it seemed inconceivable that the Pope has not until now said “even one word in support of human rights.” Still, Ferrer is certain that dissidents will change “Cuba for the good of all Cubans, with or without the Church’s support.”
Others see the Papal visit as great business opportunity. Margot lives close to the centrally located Enramadas Street, and applied two years ago for a government license allowing her to rent rooms to foreigners, but is still waiting for it. She told us: “A lot of tourists have come for this day, and it’s hard to find vacancies.”
“I wish a pope could come here every week,” Margot added with a big smile. “Santiago de Cuba has to reclaim the attention it deserves. Pope Francis will help us in that. So will Cachita** who’s already here with us.”
*The Basilica/Sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity is located in a former mining town called “El Cobre,” literally, “The Copper.” Cuban Catholics value copper fragments from the local mines because of the metal’s historical link to the Virgin of Charity.
** An affectionate nickname for anyone named “Caridad,” or “Charity,” including the Virgin of Charity herself.