A church in Guantánamo
A church in Guantánamo
By Roger Cohen
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Guantánamo, Cuba: I confess that I came here for the dateline. It beats Düsseldorf or The Hague. Like Sarajevo or Gaza City, it is one of those datelines that incline a reader onward.
I was in Santiago de Cuba, where the 50th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution will be celebrated on Jan. 1. It was hot, nobody knew if the ailing Fidel would show up, or where exactly the festivities would take place. I thought, I’ll drive out to Guantánamo, you never know.
The night before I left, a band showed up on the terrace of my Santiago hotel and played “Guantanamera,” the wistful melody about the peasant girl from Guantánamo. I thought it strange that a place once associated with a love song now summons grim images of George W. Bush’s war on terror.
Guantanamera: Once I heard it, of course, I couldn’t get the chorus out my head. Would some proud, sultry-eyed woman fit the image? Purposeless journeys bring pleasant surprises. Yes, I’d go to Guantánamo for a glimpse of the U.S. naval base and whatever else I might find.
It’s a two-hour drive from Santiago, complicated by the absence of road signs, a Cuban idiosyncrasy. I went past the town to a hillside where the bay glimmered silver and the U.S. control tower glinted far away. What a place for a bunch of Yemenis to end up.
On the way back to Guantánamo, I gave a ride to a woman who told me she worked in a prison in Havana for $20 a month and had come here to visit her children, whom she had entrusted to her mother after a painful divorce.
I asked her if she’d like to leave. “No,” she said, “but I’d like to have relatives abroad sending me money!”
In Guantánamo, we pulled up by the main plaza. Dusk was falling. Old folk sat on benches under the palms. I set out across the square toward a whitewashed church, Santa Catalina de Ricci, whose heavy wooden doors were flung open.
A surprise awaited me. The church was full. A young priest in luminous green vestments was holding Mass. His words met me as I entered: “La Misa es siempre un encuentro con Dios” – “Mass is always an encounter with God.”
I am a stranger to faith. Yet a wave of physical relief swept over me. After 10 days in Cuba, with its hymns to the heroism of Fidel, Che Guevara, the revolution and socialism, the priest seemed a merciful figure. Instead of the deification of Fidel and the utopian perfectibility of mankind, he posited human fallibility and a consoling salvation.
Graham Greene’s masterpiece, “The Power and the Glory,” came to me, with its condemned priest in his cell observing: “When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity – that was a quality God’s image carried with it.”
I was spellbound, standing in the doorway, a breeze coming in. Cuba’s relations with the Catholic Church have improved in recent years, especially since the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998. Atheism has ceased to be a revolutionary tenet.
The priest began to tell the Parable of the Talents. How a wealthy man, parting on a journey, gave five talents to one of his servants, two to another, and one to a third. And the servant with five talents invested wisely and earned another five. And the servant with two talents did the same, also doubling his money. But the third, fearful of his master, hid the talent in the ground and earned nothing.
And the first two enter “into the joy of thy lord,” but the third “wicked and slothful” servant is cast into “outer darkness.”
“Where is this parable told?” the priest asked.
A child’s hand shot up. “Saint Matthew!”
The child was right. But what of the parable in a land where there’s nothing to invest in? Was it a “free enterprise parable,” as John Howard, the former conservative prime minister of Australia once called it, a reminder that if you are given assets you must add to those assets, and that if you are entrusted with the word of God, you must make that word grow?
Or was it rather, a parable about the cost of standing up to authority, of being a whistle-blower like the third servant, who calls his master a “hard man, reaping where thou has not sown?” Was it about the courage to face down totalitarianism and its rich apparatchiks?
I wondered, but preferred mystery to answers. I’d seen America’s Guantánamo prison. I’d felt the suffering of the woman in the car. I’d left New York’s financial disaster, based on greed for multiplying assets, for the economic ravages of Cuba’s head-in-the-ground communism.
Yes, pity. And if this priest had the power to turn the wafer into the flesh and blood of God, and if the people gathered here believed that and were consoled, I was ready to bow my head in silence. That, it seemed, was why I had come to Guantánamo.