A few months back the Pope arrived here in Birmingham to take forward the process of creating Cardinal Newman a saint. He travelled close to home as he passed through Handsworth. As Rev Ian Paisley might feel there would be places on earth that you would be safe from the attentions of the mighty pontiff. Not so, just as I and my colleagues taking part in a Socialist Labour Party delegation were about to leave Cuba the Pope decided to leave at the very same time. Our way to the Jose Marti airport in Havana was blocked and we feared our travel plans home. Our taxi stopped at a point where many were lining the streets so we joined them to watch. When there was no sign of him we returned to our cab just in time before a tropical storm erupted drenching those who had not retreated. We heard that he had stopped to meet Fidel Castro.
Why was the Pope in Cuba, and what messages were sent by both sides. Watching the “impartial” BBC World Service at our hotel in Havana we learned that the Pope has come to tell the Cubans to allow its people freedom? In our three weeks there we did not feel that the government was restricting the people and no on complained about that. The only restrictions we saw were those imposed by the US in their continuing blockade which seriously affects the economy. It also compromises the internet so that I was unable to achieve a daily blog as I had intended. The internet cables surrounding the island are US owned so there is control over the system and wi-fi is virtually nowhere to be found. Nothing that works that is. The Hotel Havana Libre indicated that there was a connection but it failed to work. We also learned from the Beeb that Cuba remained “isolated”. As we knew Cuba provides doctors and teachers to many needy places, so those who have received their help don’t regard Cuba in that way. Cuba is a leading light across Latin America with countries such as Brazil and Argentina recognising the achievements of the Cuban revolution which ended the corrupt Battista government supported by US gangsters. In maintaining sanctions against Cuba it is the US that has few friends and can only call on Israel and a few other discredited governments to give support.
As we waited to get to the airport the Pope made a final address at the airport. It is published in Granma, as is the welcoming speech of Raul Castro on behalf of Cuba.
The BBC World Service ducked the issue of sanctions raised by Raul Castro. The Pope did not. Raul outlined the concerns of the Cuban government which respond to world conditions which don’t affect Cuba alone. Food supply and environmental issues are central concerns which were also raised with our delegation. We found our hosts to be very clear, open and honest about their situation and they welcomed support for their efforts in bringing about a just and fair society. Support from the Pope and his predecessor was warmly welcomed but does not signal a departure from the Socialist society of 50 years standing. I heard there are an estimated 3 million Catholics out of a population of 11 million. How many of those are practicing. Most people I spoke to seemed indifferent to the visit, except they hoped he would speak up for the unjust economic blockade, which he did.
Pictures from NY Times coverage.