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This week hundreds of Cuban-Americans have made the 40 minute flight to Havana to spend the week with Pope Benedict XVI, to attend mass at the Cathedral of Havana in Revolution Square and to close the gap caused by decades of exile from their homeland. Cubans hope the attention of the Pope’s visit will bring them greater freedom and open their door to America. Closing his visit the pontiff meet with Fidel Castro and 300,000 Cuban faithful who turned out for the mass at Revolution Plaza. Alongside the large face of Che’ filling the side of a highrise were huge banners proclaimed CHARITY UNITES US…

My visit last year to Havana (a professional researcher license to attend a literary tour was my ticket in) allowed me to walk the streets of downtown Havana for almost two weeks. The locals soon greeted me daily as “Hemingway” since I have a long white beard and hair. Everyone was very friendly and open to my photography. Never was I challenged or chased off, I found getting access to photograph in a local school, easier than anything I have experienced in Arizona. After ten days, my tour returned to the U.S. and I moved in with a local family in the shadow of the Capitol building in downtown Havana. Each day, I moved through the streets never being asked for papers or being quizzed, police officers stood on every corner and I never felt threatened or endangered. I did fall in love with the Cuban people who love Americans and who have suffered most from the Cuban embargo. It needs to end, it is pointless now, and exists still for the Cuban-Americans exiled by Castro fifty years ago. Cuba is Kansas fifth largest wheat buyer, many other cracks exist in the U.S. blockade. America needs the Cuban customer and they need us.

Cathedral of Saint Christopher of Havana near the harbor in the historic distric

Since I was a tourist, churches, cathedrals were big draws and Cuba realizes they serve visitors on many levels and act accordingly, all were open, accessible, but a weak draw for the Cuban. Today Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski held mass in the Cathedral of Saint Christopher of Havana in the Historic district for Cubans and 300 Cuban-Americans pilgrims from Miami. In the sermon the Archbishop called for Cuba to abandon Marxism without embracing the materialism of the West. Many attending had left Cuba as young children or are the sons and daughters of exiles. In Spanish the archbishop called for dignity for all Cubans.

Pope Benedict and the Vatican have set the stage for the Church to raise a voice with a sizable voting block and escalate the possibility of reduced sanctions. Since December a dozen U.S. cities have been cleared for direct flights to Cuba, while not all have ramped up yet. At least five international airports, DC, NY, LA, Miama and Denver all presently have flights making the short hop and landing at the new San Jose International Airport that Cuba built a year ago to handle their increasing need.

I visited the Cathedral of Saint Christopher of Havana at different times during my visit, Revolution Square is a big tourist stop and a local band has a permanent spot in the square and probably offered up a tune for “Papa” while the Archbishop delivered his sermon inside.

Christmas has been celebrated as a holiday in Cuba for only 3 years. Cuba officially became an atheist nation in 1962, but the Christmas holiday was celebrated until 1969, when Fidel Castro decided it was interfering with the sugar harvest. Accordingly, it was dropped from the Cuban calendar of holidays in 1969 as the island strove for a record sugar harvest.
However, the church had continued to call for greater respect for the celebration of Christmas after authorities banned the public display of Christmas trees and nativity scenes, other than in places frequented by tourists, such as hotels. In 1997 President Castro restored the holiday to honor the visit of Pope John Paul II in the island. Although Catholicism is a broad cultural backdrop in Cuba, the number of practicing Catholics among the country’s 11 million people is more limited. With the reinstatement of X’mas a large Mass is held in Havana’s Revolution Square. Thousands of Cubans worship at midnight Masses, as church bells ring out across Havana to mark the moment when Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day.

Tourists enjoy the Cuban winter sun in Regla a suburb of Havana

Some come each day, some once a week, all take counsel from the saints and light a candle.

Another day, we took a water taxi to Regla Cuba, a suburb and home to a beautiful small Catholic Church adorned by statues of the Saints, many whom, drew in regulars who relied on their help and they lit candles in thanks. The same day we passed in the harbor, the new Russian Orthodox Church, built by Russia during the “special period” (the collapse of the Soviet Union). Walking the historic Barrio Chino we saw and entered a district Catholic church which was celebrating the 500th year of Cuba. Barrio Chino, reached 40,000 Chinese who arrived in Havana in three waves. But after 1959, most left after Fidel outlawed private property. There are 500 Chinese-Cubans left in Cuba today it is reported that many are lawyers and doctors but few live in the Barrio. Barrio residents often report hearing ghostly voices, akin to a crowd of Chinese speakers in a morning market.

The Regla Catholic Church had a steady flow of folks visiting saints and this couple came in with a new infant and took photos inside the church with their saints.

All pretty tame stuff, until we got hooked-up with a Santeria New Year’s celebration, complete with dead chickens and blood. A variety of slave religions exist in Cuba mostly of African cultural origin. According to a US State Department report, some estimate 80 percent of the population consults with practitioners of West African religions, like Santeria. The hour long ceremony held openly in a city park, consisted of singing, drumming and dancing until flowers are tossed into the stream and they flow downstream to the sea. It was a beautiful performance of singing and drums. Brought to the New World by slaves imported to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations combines with Roman Catholic and Native Indian traditions. These slaves had a religious custom, including a trance for communicating with their ancestors and deities, using animal sacrifice and sacred drumming.

When the Communist wall went up around Cuba in 1959 atheism was the standard, in those days believers of God were ostracized and discriminated against, the faithful went underground. Since those years, the Cuban government has allowed the Catholic Church a greater voice and today the Church works with the Castros to reach greater goals. The Vatican says Cuba is 60% Catholic, but most agree fewer than 10% are practicing, but know they should. Following the 1960s many believers chose to hide their faith in response to state persecution. Many parents chose not to burden their children with the difficulties they would inherit if they were baptized Christians, and therefore did not raise them as such. The archdiocese of Havana in 1971 reported only 7000 baptisms. In 1989 this increased to 27,609 and in 1991 to 33,569. Today Protestant churches includes Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh-day Adventists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Methodist, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and Lutherans. Other groups include the Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).

Personal business licenses allow Cubans to open their doors and sell food out of their homes.

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba has spotlighted the Communist Island and his pleas for reform–begging for more freedom for the Cuban people many hope the Pope’s influence will bring change to Cubans lives on this Caribbean Isle. Increased freedoms were known following the historic visit of John Paul in 1998, and over the years the Communist lock down on people’s lives has slowly been lessened. In the past year, Cubans have been allowed to sell private property; houses and cars, and thousands of personal business licenses have been issued so individuals can provide paid services, like selling pizza slices on the street. Many Cubans set up restaurants in their homes, or rent out rooms to tourists, collecting about $25 for two people for the night.


Held at a local night club this Santeria performance blesses the crowd ....



Inscribed artwork inside a monument along the seawall of Havana showing the Church's role once.

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