Dawn broke, this Thursday, to hundreds of pilgrims and promise keepers in the sanctuary of Rincón, south of Havana. The front pages of the world’s newspapers celebrated the first anniversary of the announcement of the thaw in relations between Cuba and the United States, while the people of the island lit candles to a figure with sores and crutches. The 17 th of December has been imposed as a date of diplomacy, but in this land it is still the day of Saint Lazarus, the saint of the sick and marginalized.
Ramón Zulueta is one of the pilgrims who waited for midnight in the crowded chapel where some pray to the Catholic image, while others call it Babalu Aye. A few months ago Ramón watched his only son depart for Ecuador, a son who is now a part of the thousands of Cubans stranded on the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. “I come to ask the saint to help him,” he explains to 14ymedio, holding in his hands a small wooden airplane he has brought as an offering.
A couple of teenagers who have come from Matanzas pray very near the altar, asking that “they won’t close it,” in reference to the possible elimination of the Cuban Adjustment Act that grants the island’s residents immigration privileges to enter the United States. “I already told the ‘old man’ that if he helps me get there, from that side I am going to send to raise a life-size image,” promises the young man, kissing his fist.
A few yards away is a couple accompanied by their young children, among them a baby of barely six months. “We want a healthy and prosperous 2016,” asks the woman, who runs a private diner in the nearby town of Santiago de las Vegas. “For us, not much has changed,” she said, when asked about effects of the reestablishment of relations between Washington and Havana, but added, “something will happen for us now.”
Next to the color purple and garments made from jute sacks to please the leprous saint, some of those gathered wear clothes printed with the stars and stripes from the country to the north. One of the most obvious transformations of the last 12 months is the proliferation of Uncle Sam’s ensign without triggering the official repudiation of years past.
Cuban-Americans are also present at the scene. “Now it is easier to travel,” says Victoria, the daughter of exiled parents who have never returned to the island, but to whom she will take back a collection of photos of “the places they loved.” The measures adopted by Barack Obama to ease the sending of remittances have greatly helped the oldest members of her family, “who are on this side,” she said.
Among the avalanche of diplomatic statements and meetings between the two governments, the Cuban people try to capitalize on the most practical accords, which so far “are few,” reflects Victoria. The increase in the amount of remittances and the expansion to 12 of the number of reasons Americans can travel to Cuba are, right now, “the most popular measures.”
“It has gone very well for me,” says Esteban, a young man of 32 who works as a waiter in a private restaurant in the Playa district in Havana. “A lot of yumas come to eat now and they leave good money,” he comments. For Esteban, the best part of this year of reestablishment of relations between the perennial enemies is, “the custom of leaving a 10% tip is sneaking into Cuba,” he says smiling.
Early in the morning a man arrives dragging an enormous stone on his back. The sun’s rays barely penetrate the shadows all around. It is estimated that every year more than 15,000 pilgrims arrive in less than 40 hours in this village in Boyeros to ask for better health or more fortune. The majority are very poor people, although the new emerging middle class can also be seen.
“Last year I came on foot, three miles, but this time I made a greater sacrifice. I paid a Panataxi from Central Havana to the junction,” jokes a man who sports a shirt with Barack Obama’s face. “I am asking Saint Lazarus to enlighten us and open the ways of this country, because if not I don’t think I will spend next 17 December here,” he says, while placing a red candle beside others already lit.
Family members of prisoners also pour in. “My son has already ‘pulled’ five years and he has three left,” says a lady who prefers not to give her name and who carries in her hands a picture of an old man with his two dogs licking his wounds. “I come to ask Babalu to open the prison bars for my son and for so many young people who all they have done is try to survive in this country.”
In the sanctuary some hold hands and pray quietly. Others take out their phones and cameras to take pictures. Yassiel, 27, has filmed a dozen short videos at the entrance to the place with the promise keepers carrying heavy wooden arms or legs. “It there were a wife zone here, I would load them up right away,” he comments.
However, internet connections are very far away from the traditional sanctuary that seems frozen in time. Neither Barack Obama, nor Raul Castro, nor even the pious Saint Lazarus have managed to allow Cubans to fully enjoy the miracle of connectivity this year. “No man lives only on promises,” comments Yassiel, and it is unclear if he is saying it to the image of this man with sores and a sad face who, today, has reclaimed his 17D.
*Translator’s note: Like Americans say “9-11” instead of September 11, 2001, Cubans say “17D” instead of 17 December 2014, the day Barack Obama and Raul Castro jointly announced the restoration of relations between the United States and Cuba.