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The Wait Bears Fruit; What of Hope?

Ruth Behar, a professor at the University of Michigan, is the author of "The Vulnerable Observer--Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart" and editor of an anthology, "Bridges to Cuba/Puentes a Cuba" (University of Michigan Press)

When I came to Havana last week, people’s doors and living rooms were already decked with posters of Pope John Paul II. In the image most widely on display, which is being distributed by local churches, the pope holds the crucifix tight against his forehead, and next to his image are the words, “mensajero de la verdad y la esperanza"--"messenger of truth and hope.” Huge banners of the pope now hang flapping along the expanse of the Malecon, the sea wall that curves around the city, acting as both fortress and gateway to the world that lies beyond the ocean.

The priests of the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion made their annual prophesy on the eve of the new year and proclaimed that in 1998 the spirits of Yemaya and Obbatala, goddesses of the sea and mental clarity, will rule and unexpected things will come to pass.

And, indeed, expectations are high that important changes for Cuba and even the world will follow the pope’s visit. In 1898, Cuba obtained its freedom from Spain at the cost of becoming a colony of the United States. 1998 is a potent centennial, and the pope’s visit makes it even more charged. People who for decades have been preparing for a U.S. invasion are now asking if the U.S. embargo might be lifted.

Although most people are going about their daily business as usual today in Havana, police are stationed at every street corner, randomly checking identification cards, and thousands of Cubans have been mobilized through their work centers to serve as a civilian militia during the pope’s stay. The island bristles with the mixture of tension, longing and weary optimism felt by the ill in the waiting room of a doctor’s office.

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Of course, Cubans being Cubans, they joke as they wait. In Spanish the word for pope is papa, which also means potato or simply food, and jokes have proliferated playing on this double meaning. Among them is the story about the bilingual billboard, created by someone who didn’t look very far in the dictionary, and came up with “Bienvenido Papa"--"Welcome, Potato.”

Cubans, both those who stayed on the island and those who have left since the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, are used to waiting. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, exiles in Miami expected the Castro regime to topple immediately and produced T-shirts that joyfully proclaimed “Next Year in Havana.” The death this past year of exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa reminded many in the Cuban diaspora that they, too, may never return to the free Cuba of their dreams.

On the island, in turn, the last 39 years of trying to build the revolution at home and abroad, while standing on line for food rations and buses, have taught Cubans that waiting is a fine art. During the past week I heard more than one person complain that they set out in the morning to go somewhere, waited three hours for a bus that never came and returned home, leaving their errand undone yet again.

These daily frustrations, once accepted as part of the small individual burdens one had to bear to make possible the dream of the socialist paradise, are no longer so patiently borne With the disappearance of the Soviet subsidies that kept the economy afloat in a U.S. trade embargo that continues stronger than ever, Cuba has entered the global capitalist economy at breakneck speed. Tourism, prostitution and U.S. dollars are back, with a terrible vengeance, supposedly to save the revolution. If capitalism is being allowed back into Cuba in order to save communism, whose communism are the people’s sacrifices building?

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The word esperanza, “hope,” is very charged for Cubans. Esperanza comes from the word espera, to wait, and it rhymes with its opposite, desespera, for discouragement, not being able to abide desperation. To wait/to hope has been the verb of the revolution. A billboard on La Rampa, the main thoroughfare in Havana, reads “Nadie podra quitarnos la esperanza"--"No one can take away our hope.”

An artist friend of mine, Rolando Estevez, who is based in Matanzas, has just finished a series of 15 charcoal drawings on the theme of waiting. In each drawing, a miniature male figure seeks to define his relationship to a huge, wall-size chunk of rock. “I Wait Triumphantly” shows the figure holding the boulder above his head; the one called “I Wait Hiding” shows him pulling an enormous curtain over the boulder. The most tragic is the one called “I Wait Trying,” in which the little figure struggles desperately to pull the boulder away with a thin and flimsy chain.

What will His Holiness, the closest representative of God on Earth, as he is being depicted here, have to say to the Cuban people, a people who have been waiting for so long? No one is better suited than the pope, a survivor and challenger of European communism, a symbol of reconciliation with peoples of other faiths, a world traveler and an outspoken critic of capitalism’s humanitarian failings, to bless the Cuban people and tell them what the prognosis is for their future and their revolution. Dressed all in white in a fashion resembling that of the initiates of Santeria when they are about to receive the guardianship of their chosen saint, the pope is very nearly a messianic figure, a harbinger of miracles for Cubans at this moment, standing on the edge of the century, the eyes of the world on them.

But the pope is not coming simply to commune with the Cuban people. He is coming to meet with another figure of great charisma and magical power, Fidel Castro, who came out alive from Batista’s jails and survived dozens of assassination attempts by the CIA, who has maintained a communist government right under the nose of his imperialist enemy, and who, people say, went to Africa to receive the protection of the saints in Africa. The meeting of John Paul and Fidel will be the meeting of two of the century’s most powerful men. When they sit down to dine together, so the joke goes, the pope will ask for carne de caballo (for Fidel is popularly known as the horse) and his host will order carne con papa.

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