From Catholic News, Trinidad Sunday October 4, 2015
Catholic Media Services Ltd sent Associate Editor Raymond Syms on assignment to Cuba to cover the recent visit of Pope Francis. He went as part
of a 35-member pilgrimage and shares below some of his experiences.
A tourist visiting Cuba wants to meet former President Fidel Castro. He asks a Cubano what to do. “First, you have to climb that mountain there, then cross that desert, and finally swim that sea – they’ll put your name on the waiting list.”
It’s a polite joke told in Cuba – land of the Castro brothers, Che, la revolucion and cigars. But if your title is “Papa Francisco” then you have no problem!
Pope Francis visited the communist island September 19–22 and met the former President before heading to the United States. At least two pilgrimages from this Archdiocese journeyed to our Spanish-speaking Caribbean neighbours for the papal visit. After all, Pope Francis is in the Caribbean, and no one knows when or if he will visit these parts again. I was sent on assignment to cover the visit as best I could, and was ‘embedded’ with the pilgrimage led by the Living Water Community.
The COPA Airlines flight, CM 315, left Piarco on the morning of Thursday, September 17 for Panama, where we took connecting flight CM 322 to the Jose Marti Airport in Havana. Those in the other pilgrimage, organised by A’s Travel Service, were on the same flights.
Security was clearly heightened in El Departamento de Immigración y Aduanas
But on seeing us all dressed in red polos, the supervisor instructed his officers that this group was here for the Pope’s visit. The mandatory questions were asked and tourist visas were soon stamped. Trinity TV’s Lisa Bhajan, Dianne Agostini and Christophe Cole and I had special media visas courtesy the Cuban Embassy in T&T.
After being scanned and submitting the required forms, we assembled outside the Arrivals gate. We were met by representatives of Latitud Cuba Turismo Especializado and introduced to our guide, Yanais Posada Sardoy – just call her “Jenny”. She and our coach driver “Johnny” were made honorary Trinis before the end of the pilgrimage.
We changed our US and Euro currency to Cuban pesos or CUC in the Cambio and boarded the coach, minus two members.
From the airport to the hotel there were well manicured roundabouts and gardens, sculptures, squares and plazas. And yes, there was a comingling of fairly recent Japanese cars with those from the American 50s and 60s on the road. Also seen were sidecars, and even horse and donkey-drawn carriages.
There were a couple of police squad cars on the highway but otherwise there were no visible signs of Policia. I’d later find out from Jenny that they were actually “always around”, just dressed in plain clothes. Along the route there were Bienvenido a Cuba Papa Francisco billboards and banners with the colours of the Cuban and Vatican flags. Cuba was preparing for the Pope.
Arriving 25 minutes later at the all-inclusive resort, Memories Miramar Habana, we were registered and given our hotel room key cards. Before leaving the meeting room, the two other members of the pilgrimage arrived much to the relief of all. Note: if travelling to Cuba, don’t pack ‘walkie talkies’ – they’re prohibited. Live and learn.
Miramar is a residential district in the municipality of Playa, one of 15 in the Havana Province.
I took a two-mile run early Friday morning along 5th Avenue, joining other early morning walkers and runners. Later that morning, Lisa, Dianne,
Christophe and I took a taxi from the hotel to the Centro de Prensa Internacional, Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores(International Press Centre, Ministry of External Relations). We passed the US Embassy along the way, with people milling around hoping to get an appointment.
We had hoped it would be simply a case of collecting the accreditation badges, since we had sent the requested information ahead through the Embassy. Unfortunately for us, and for other members of the international media, we had to complete the same forms and submit passport-sized photos again. The entire process took roughly two hours since, as we discovered later, all the applications were being processed by just one worker.
After contacting Jenny, we later met up with the rest of the pilgrimage in Old Havana, at the Church of the Virgin of Mercy. We had lunch at a restaurant along the Malecon where we were serenaded for a few CUC.
From there we walked to the historical Armas Plaza, site of the oldest fort and where the first Mass was celebrated in a temple, and then we were taken to a store which sold Havana rum and cigars.
An hour later the coach took us to Cuba’s National Sanctuary of Our Lady of Regla, where a prized statue of the Black Madonna is kept. While there, a newly wedded couple arrived in a bright red vintage car. Married in a civil ceremony, the bridegroom, bride and their children knelt before the statue in prayer.
Christian values are visible in communist Cuba, but you have to look closely.