Whither Cuba in John Paul’s Wake?

Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus (Penguin, 2005) tells the story of the 1980 boatlift that brought more than 125,000 Cubans to the United States. Its author, Pulitzer-winning journalist Mirta Ojito, knows their story from the inside: She was one of them.

Her tale is constructed in two parts comprised of alternating chapters: growing up in Cuba in a Catholic family that opposed Fidel Castro and spurned his call for revolution, and the behind-the-scenes work of the people in Miami and Havana who made the boatlift happen.

Ojito, a journalism professor at Columbia University in New York, spoke with Register correspondent Raymond T. Cordani.              

What role did faith play for you when you were writing Finding Mañana?

I don’t know that I can answer that there was a role that faith plays directly, but gratitude did. I started to research this book because I felt I needed to find those people to thank them because I felt they had all played a role in getting me out of Cuba. I found the captain of [the rescue boat] Mañana, Mike Howell. I felt there was something important there. I don’t know what to call that.

I felt many times through this process that I was meant to write this book. Many things happened that pointed to me that I was in the right direction and it was almost like the book had been waiting for me. You can call it faith, you can call it coincidence, you can call it a miracle. I call it a terrific moment in my life. There have been many happy coincidences I’ve had in reporting this book.

What was it like to grow up Catholic in Castro’s Cuba?

I remember being told, “How can a smart girl like you believe in God?” I’ve also heard from people who were told, “Close your eyes and ask God for an orange. Pray really hard. Now open your eyes. Do you see an orange?” And there wouldn’t be an orange. And they would say, “See? God doesn’t exist.”

We were never specifically told, “You must not believe in God.” But we were made to feel that to believe in God was a very silly thing to do. And then, beyond that, was the Church. It was not only silly but it was in a certain way dangerous. They kicked nuns and priests out of Cuba, many of them. And many left, also. They closed the Catholic schools, so you began to get the sense that being affiliated in any way with the Catholic Church was a very bad thing to do. So that’s why I left the Church.

You write that you felt compelled to renounce the Catholic faith. How did that experience change you?

It was a horrible experience. Imagine what that does to a child. I felt that I was being punished for something that was beyond me, so much a part of my culture and part of my house. At home we always talked about God. It’s something that was there, like the facts of life. I was in the choir; I took piano lessons with the woman who directed the choir. It was very much my community. I spent all my Saturday afternoons of my childhood there. And they were actually lovely experiences. When I went back in 1998 I found a very, very active church.

You covered Pope John Paul’s 1998 visit to Cuba for The New York Times. What was it like to return to the island you left behind so long ago?

It was fascinating. I met a priest. … He had a motorcycle and he rode around to people’s homes and brought them food and took care of a woman with a broken leg. The children exercised at the church and gave the children gifts. They had an entire system developed where they would reward the children for going to church. [The priest] had become a leader in the community.

That the Pope was going to Cuba was a shock. Right before then, there was a revival of the faith. You very much saw a different dynamic in the way the Church communicated and attracted people. I remember going to the church I went to when I was a child. I knew I was going to have to do a story about a church, any church, to prepare for the Pope’s visit. I remember, I called the Archdiocese in Cuba from New York and I said, “I want a church but I don’t want a church in downtown Havana or Miramar because those are the places where reporters go all the time.” When you see reporters out of Cuba, that’s where the reporters are. I wanted a little known church out of the way that nobody else would bother to go and I wanted it all to myself.

The woman said, “Oh, I know what you want. The best church, the neighborhood that nobody goes to, is called Santo Suarez; the church is La Milagrosa.” And that’s my church; that’s my neighborhood! I almost dropped the phone. I was shocked when I heard it — the same church I left.

What do you think will happen after Castro dies? Will the Church in Cuba flourish?

I sense that the sort of momentum after the Pope went to Cuba stayed there for a long time. I don’t know if that is the case any longer. I am afraid that, after that sort of enthusiasm and momentum, the moment may have been lost. It’s going to be almost eight years since the Pope went. I just don’t think they’ve been able to keep up that momentum.

John Paul’s visit to Poland helped topple communism in Eastern Europe. Any idea why his visit to Cuba didn’t have the same effect?

Cuba is a country that is culturally Catholic, but we’re not Mexico, where there is a total devotion to the Virgin Mary. … I just don’t see the people of Cuba like that.

Why did Castro let John Paul visit Cuba?

Why would he do that? That’s a question I’ve asked myself many, many times. My impression is that they were just coming out of a very bad economic period. Cuba needed aid. The Berlin Wall had fallen. They needed new allies and they needed aid. The Pope is a good person to have around. Fidel might have felt that he needed to send an olive branch to the Church.

I couldn’t know exactly why, because he didn’t get anything out of it except some feeling of good will. Perhaps it was something he felt he wanted to do for the people of Cuba — to keep them entertained.

Raymond T. Cordani

 writes from Orlando, Florida.


Mirta Ojito online