Cubans like to say that their impoverished country is a land of miracles. How many people can pack onto a bus? Only God knows. The same irony was there on the road to the Church of St Lazarus at Rincón. The pilgrims had set out on their trek to the church for the saint’s feast-day as perfectly able-bodied men and women, but were inviting disability by grinding themselves against the blacktop for mile after mile. ‘Some of them mix up St Lazarus with a god called Babalú-Ayé,’ said Sister Rita Llanza tolerantly. It was a mix-up typical of Santería, Cuban voodoo, a profane marriage of the Catholicism imported by the Spanish and the faith of West African slaves. Adherents of Santería believed that Babalú-Ayé would look down on their prostration and find it pleasing. Sister Rita wasn’t in the least put out by the Scriptural inaccuracies of the pilgrims, accepting their candles across the altar rail in exchange for a cheaply printed parish newsletter. Wasn’t it a cardinal rule of Santería that initiates must first have been baptised? The Church in Cuba, for so many years oppressed, welcomed sinners wherever it could find them. ‘And you: I suppose you are Episcopalian?’ Sister Rita asked me. A fat bald man was standing at the door of the church, holding his hand out and intoning in a funny high voice: ‘Could you give me something because I cannot see?’ I’m sure the sister wouldn’t have minded, that she would perhaps have looked on me as a challenge, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was a Santería man myself, a Santero, or rather that I was part of the way down the road to initiation, a chicken having been sacrificed over my head in a comical ceremony in a bloodstained chapel.

For èvery person who nudged a crude effigy of St Lazarus before him, wincing at each yard, there were many more whose one concession to the festival was an item of sackcloth cut with an eye to earthly vanity as much as saintly devotion. The smartly humble were outnumbered in turn by entrepreneurs selling religious gewgaws and candles and fresh flowers. The sale of these sacred accessories is itself a symbol of growing economic and religious freedom in Cuba. Self-employment is allowed as a means of rescuing the country from the financial pass it has found itself in since Moscow stopped the cheques half a dozen years ago. And last year Cubans enjoyed their first real Christmas for almost forty years, emboldened by Fidel Castro’s invitation to the Pope to visit Cuba, to believe that faith is no longer a temporal sin. Attending church was never illegal, but it used to be enough to debar a Cuban from belonging to the Party, and thus from his or her preferred apartment building or career.

In the vast Colón cemetery in Havana, devotees of La Milagrosa surprised us by agreeing to be filmed describing the trials of faith they had endured. La Milagrosa, otherwise Amelia Goyra, died in childbirth on 3 May 1901. Her baby also perished and mother and child were buried side by side. When the coffin was subsequently opened, Señora Goyra was discovered cradling the infant in her arms, or so the story goes. At any rate, she is petitioned by Cubans in need of help in such matters as poor health, infertility or the lack of a house. They rap a brass link on the lid of her tomb in order to attract her attention before a request for intercession. A tall dark girl called Laudis Fernández said that her best friend, a practising Catholic, had been refused a place at college to study Russian, with its coveted extra-curricular bonus of foreign travel. ‘This was in the days when people still studied Russian,’ she added wryly.

Christmas itself isn’t illegal but it isn’t officially observed; it’s not a public holiday. Fidel once told an interviewer that Catholicism was the religion of Cuba’s old Spanish slave-owning élite. I had assumed that this was the state’s official explanation for the removal of Christmas from the Cuban calendar. But in Havana, I heard the extraordinary story of what John Paul II said to Fidel Castro during his audience at the Vatican late last year. The Holy Father, standing close to the President, took the opportunity to ask him why he had cancelled Christmas. The direct approach does not necessarily guarantee a satisfactory response from El Jefe. In a quiet moment at an international summit some years ago, a senior European politician personally appealed to him for liberalisation. Castro heard him out and then complimented him on the splendour of his tie-pin. John Paul II at least had the satisfaction of a straight answer. Fidel told him that the Cuban regime had been forced to overlook the Nativity one year in order to get the sugar harvest in. The Revolution couldn’t afford to give the campesinos time off, notwithstanding the fact that machetes were downed on such red-letter days as the anniversary of the failed raid on government barracks in the era of Castro’s predecessor. The decision had been taken in the Sixties but the pattern had somehow become set. Nevertheless, last Christmas, the first one since the invitation to the Pope, there was a tall pine standing near El Malecón, the Havana promenade, and staff in the resort hotels were wearing red hats frogged with false white fur.

I’ve interviewed Jaime Ortega, the man who three years ago became Cardinal of Cuba, in the past. But this time he was unavailable – his mother had died, his aide said; he was overwhelmed with requests from journalists from as far afield as Thailand – and he went on being unavailable for the length of our stay in Havana. The visits we made to the Cardinal’s offices in Havana Vieja, the hard liquor we produced for the aide: none of it did any good. This may have been because the Pope’s visit, pencilled in for next January, turns out to be rather ticklish for the Cuban Church, perhaps more ticklish than it is for the Cuban Government. ‘The Pope can go where he wants, can say what he wants,’ according to one Government spokesman. Well, we’ll see about that: but you sense that the Government has calculated that pictures of His Holiness on Cuban soil, à deux with Fidel in Plaza de la Revolución, will be worth a thousand critical words. The clerics who would talk to us, including the Auxiliary Bishop of Havana, who helped to clinch the Papal visit, said that it would help ‘reconciliation’ and ‘the unity of the Cuban people’. This is a reference to the Cubans living in the United States – members of the wider Cuban family, as the Church sees them. The Church is resigned to the fact that militant exiles will be barracking from Miami during the Pope’s trip, outraged at its appearing to confer the blessing of the Vatican on the Revolution. But the priests are gambling that cooler heads in the exile community will see the visit as a station on the road to a new, less ideological future.

We fared no better with Kiki the babalao – a Santería priest – than with the Cardinal. We climbed the corkscrew of smooth stone steps leading to Kiki’s place in Vedado, a house with a bloodstained backroom which serves as his chapel. We brought him a bottle of Scotch, but it made about as much impression as the one we’d left for the Cardinal’s secretary. Kiki was in a bad mood. We hadn’t turned up at a Santería fiesta on St Lazarus’ Eve to which he had invited us. ‘It was a very good fiesta,’ he said with a hangdog face. I took this to mean that there had been food and loud drumming, as at another party in honour of St Lazarus, or Babalú-Ayé, which I had attended. Guests had presumably fallen into trances and babbled in tongues and passed out, as I had seen them do. We explained that we had been filming the ritual at the church. Grudgingly, Kiki gave me a copy of Santería’s answer to Old Moore’s Almanac: the predictions of the divinity, Orula. It reminded me of Sister Rita’s parish newsletter and stressed the importance of coughing up $40 for your local babalao. My local babalao cheered up only after we complimented him on photographs of his daughter, pictured on her wedding day.

It was a surprise to find that we had greater co-operation from a high priest of the state than from the Church. But the Revolution wishes to be seen recanting its sins, or at least admitting them. The Religious Affairs Ministry – a new one on me – put up an urbane chap in a sports jacket who interrupted me halfway through a question about persecution to own up to it. Yes, we did throw priests out, he confessed, but only because they had agitated against the regime from the pulpit. Taking communion was no longer an impediment to worldly preferment, he assured me, and Catholics and Protestants and followers of Santería sat in the National Assembly.

‘As a matter of interest,’ I said, ‘are you a believer yourself?’

‘No,’ said the man from the Religious Affairs Ministry. ‘No, I don’t believe in anything.’

The secular creed, the veneration of la Revolución itself, has been in decline for some time. When I lived in Havana, I rented an apartment on 25 y O in Vedado, in the building, as it turned out, where Castro and others, including Abel and Haydée Santamaría, brother and sister, had plotted Batista’s downfall. Apartment 603, two floors above my old flat, has been turned into a museum. It contains Fidel’s old desk (buró de trabajo de Fidel Castro), the sky-blue dinner service the revolutionaries ate off (piezas de la vajilla de Haydée Santamaría utilizada en el apartamento) and the bed in which the future Maximum Leader from time to time took forty winks (cama de Abel Santamaría utilizada también por Haydée. En ella descansó en varias ocasiones Fidel Castro). A swatch of the original sofa cover is preserved behind glass, like a fragment of a saint’s garment. When I had visited in the past – to sneak an illicit lie-down on Fidel’s lumpy bed – the museum had been in the care of several women based in the adjacent apartment. They would show you over the place for a dollar, and you had the impression that they were glad of the company. Now there was a solitary curator, or at least a young man who had to consult boxes of documents and make lengthy phone Calls at the sight of our camera. He, or perhaps the Revolution, chiselled $50 out of us as a facility fee. While our translator kept the curator busy, I sat on a corner of Fidel’s eiderdown to do a piece to camera; and had a look at a musty pamphlet about José Martí, Cuba’s great patriot, in the revolutionaries’ bookcase.

One official at a Western embassy said that Castro’s invitation to the Pope was only a publicity stunt. ‘Castro is like a dolphin swimming underwater: from time to time, he has to come up for air. To him, publicity is air.’ Vladimir Roca, a member of the pro-reform group Concilio Cubano, went further, claiming that Castro will find a way of reneging, of not being at home to John Paul II, when the time comes. Who knows if the Pope will even be well enough to travel to Cuba? But you hoped that he would, for the sake of people like Enrique Angel Valdéz, a construction worker in a hard hat who approached me during mass in Havana Cathedral. I was half-expecting a plea for money. However, it’s quite normal to be stopped in Havana by strangers wishing to share their thoughts about anything that might have caught their attention. Valdéz, a walk-on in an improbable morality play, wanted to tell me: ‘We may not have riches on earth, but spiritual riches are more important’.

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