Cuba hosts pope, and Boston locals

Senior citizens from the Casa de Abuelos senior center in Havana treat Boston visitors to traditional Cuban songs, March 26. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy

Donis Tracy, Pilot Correspondent, writes from Cuba where she travelled together with a delegation of Friends of Caritas Cubana, a non-profit organization that works to enhance the capacity of Caritas Cubana, the island's equivalent of Catholic Charities, in anticipation of Pope Benedict's March 26 visit to the country. The following is her account of the first two days of their trip in the city of Havana, as it prepared to welcome the pope. Look for more coverage of their journey in next week's Pilot.

HAVANA -- In anticipation of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Havana, a delegation of Friends of Caritas Cubana embarked on a five-day journey March 25, to experience firsthand how Cubans live, and what the Church is doing to help make their lives better.

"Be prepared because in Cuba things always seem to go a little wrong before they go very right," warned Michael Eizenberg, founder of Educational Travel Alliances (ETA), in an email sent to those participating on the trip. Eizenburg, together with fellow ETA founder Kathy Rice, arranged and led the culturally enriching pilgrimage.

The warning couldn't have been more correct.

Beginning in Miami International Airport, where the computers crashed and could not print out anyone's boarding pass for close to two hours, the trip began a bit rocky.

On arrival in Havana airport, the chaos was extraordinary. Huge televisions, medical equipment, large canvas bags littered the baggage claim area. Hundreds of people, all searching for their belongings, made it clear to the 17 Bostonians that we were certainly not in any airport we'd even experienced before.

However, true the words of warning, following the initial chaos, everything went "very right."

The bus awaited our arrival and took the 17 of us to the Hotel Quinta Avenida, a newly built hotel in the Miramar district of Havana, where we were met with a cocktail reception and dinner.

The following morning, we had our first encounter with the Cuban people -- taking a walking tour of Havana with historian and professor Mario Cuoyola who navigated the streets of Havana. Cuoyola did not just focus on the important historic sites such as the La Fuerza, the oldest fortress standing in the Americas, built in 1558, but also commented on the current state of the Cuban people.

"Havana is a city of contradictions," Cuoyola explained. "It is a city that is both full of beauty and full of poverty."

As we walked along the streets of Havana, we witnessed how many of the once-stately homes have begun to collapse.

"Families still live in these homes, many of which are structurally dangerous," Cuoyola said. He pointed out the many projects being funded by the government's historic office "trying to preserve the old buildings and restore them to their full glory."

But this is not enough, he added. "We need to empower regular citizens to solve their own problems, not wait for the government to solve their problems," he said.

Cuoyola ended his walking tour at the Church of La Merced, a historic church that runs the "Casa de Abuelos [Grandparent's Home]," a senior day facility that takes in 60 senior citizens and feeds, clothes and cares for them on a daily basis.

Casa director Teresa Fernandez introduced us to the seniors, who greeted us warmly. A choir composed of nine senior citizens, some in wheelchairs, others using canes to walk around, treated us to some traditional Cuban songs. Afterwards, some of the members of the Boston group passed around chocolates and other treats they had brought.

"Do you know how much money this would cost us," exclaimed AnaMaria Claramunt, an 86-year-old participant of the Casa de Abuelos, holding up a Milky Way bar. "Treats like these are all but impossible to get here these days."

Leaving the Casa, our group walked to the Mercado de San Jose, a large indoor marketplace where artisans sell the works they have created. Having been in existence for only a few months, the Mercado houses many of the vendors who formerly sold their works on the streets of Havana.

Continuing our tour, we walked around the Hotel Nacional, a famous Havana hotel that overlooks the harbor. As we were there, the papal arrival in Santiago de Cuba created quite a stir. Maids, servers, bartenders all left their posts and crowded around the television, to watch the pontiff descend the steps of the airplane and greet Raul Castro, the country's leader.

That evening we were entertained by Entre Voces, an a cappella choir led by Digna Guerra, director of the National Chorus of Cuba. Dining on the rooftop of the Santa Isabel Hotel, the members of the choir spoke to us about their lives in and around Havana.

One woman, named Giselle, who was pregnant, explained that the lack of disposable diapers in Cuba means that women use the linings of the diapers and insert cloths, which they wash by hand.

Despite the hardships, she added, she would never want to live anywhere else.

"This is my home. This is my country," she said, "I love it here."

The following day, the Boston group visited the Museo de Bellas Artes [Museum of Fine Arts], followed by a visit to the meal center at St. Agustin parish in Havana.

At the meal center, director Mercedes Hernandez-Valdez explained that Caritas Cubana provides a substantial midday meal for 100 seniors every weekday. Those who are ambulatory, roughly 24 of them, eat their meals at a small refectory in the basement of the church. The rest have their food brought to them by parish volunteers.

"Sometimes the people who come to us are a bit desperate because they only eat what they eat here," Hernandez-Valdez explained. "Some have no money to buy food, others are too old and feeble to cook for themselves."

She added that many people carry half of the food home with them in order to have food to eat that evening.

In addition to the meal center, St. Agustin also runs a school for continuing studies, where residents receive instruction on a variety of topics, such as computers, marketing, French and English. The classes, mostly taught by area university professors, are free and open to the public, she said.

"Anyone can study here. They don't have to be Catholic. There have been men who have come in their military uniforms; there was even a man who was a Santero [practitioner of Santeria]," Hernandez-Valdez said.

"[The school has] been here eight years, and have had no problems," she added. "It's open, everyone knows it's here, but it hasn't been officially sanctioned by the government."

The evening before the Papal Mass in Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion, the Boston pilgrims joined with other American groups to celebrate a Mass at the Carmelite convent in Havana, presided by Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley.

"I am favorably impressed with the whole Caritas Cubana efforts in the brief interactions I have had with them in the past 48 hours," commented John Kaneb, who together with his wife, Ginny are among the members of the Boston delegation.

Bob Mahoney, another Boston pilgrim, agreed.

Mahoney, who also came 14 years ago when Pope John Paul II traveled to Cuba, has witnessed firsthand what a difference the Church has made in those years.

"The Church before was an underground Church," he said. "Now it does appear to be the second largest institution in Cuba. To me, the single most impressive thing I have seen is the role the Catholic Church has taken on -- and the hope that has come from it."

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