This is Chapter 27 of my novel, The Pope’s Secret. For previous chapters, just scroll down.
This is Chapter 26 of my novel, The Pope’s Secret. For previous chapters, just scroll down.
This is Chapter 21 of my novel, The Pope’s Secret. Virtually all the lines spoken by Mr. Castro in this chapter are direct quotes from Fidel on Religion by Brazil’s Frei Betto who personally gave me permission to use those statements verbatim.
To read previous chapters of The Pope’s Secret, just scroll down.
This is Chapter 20 from my novel, The Pope’s Secret.
For previous chapters, just scroll down.
Cuban Farmers’ Market
This is an explanation of the Cuban system that you won’t hear in the United States.
(And please excuse the recording errors I’ve made. Reading this well is more difficult than I thought — especially while experimenting with foreign accents. I hope readers will understand. As it turns out, reading aloud also brings to the fore editorial problems that I’ll correct in the written version. Thanks in advance for your patience. And feel free to offer suggestions that will make future recordings more bearable.)
I met a woman like Damiana in Cuba. This is pretty much an accurate account of our first conversation. (For previous chapters of my novel The Pope, His Chamberlain, the Jinetera, and Fidel: a novel about Cuba, prostitution and the Catholic Church, scroll down.)
Today, I begin a recording of a novel I wrote more than 20 years ago. At my current age of 81, I just want to get the book out in the public in some form while I still can. The novel is called The Pope, His Chamberlain, The Jinetera & Fidel.
It’s a fictional story about Pope John Paul II’s actual 1997 trip to Cuba. I repeat: it’s a fictional story. So, don’t go accusing the sainted pope of the moral failing I place at the story’s center.
On the other hand, the tale was inspired by my own actual first journey to Cuba in the summer of 1996. It reflects what I learned there during a two-week stay under the auspices of the Greater Cincinnati Council of World Affairs – again, the first of many sojourns for me in the adopted home of Che Guevara and Assata Shakur. I’ve visited Cuba more than a dozen times since.
I originally wrote the book as a virtual vehicle for taking my friends and students to Cuba — to expose them to what I experienced during the 1990s “special period” there — and to clear up common misperceptions about life on the island. It was during the ’90s that U.S. sanctions coupled with the fall of the Soviet Union (and Cuba’s loss in the process of 85% of its trading partners) made life nearly unbearable for the Cuban people.
Today, something similar is transpiring for Cubans. The COVID-19 pandemic along with intensified U.S. sanctions have once again brought the tiny nation to its knees. (Hence the protests we’ve all heard so much about.) So, Cuba today is very similar to the Cuba of the last century’s final decade which is the novel’s setting.
The book’s relevance also stems from its indirect exposition of liberation theology, which I consider the most important theological development of the last 1500 years. Pope John Paul II was its foremost opponent. I’d like readers to come away with a better understanding of that theology and social movements it inspired.
Here’s my bottom line: though largely fictional, the descriptions I’ve portrayed here are true in that many of them reflect my own experience. In the introductions to relevant chapters, I’ll emphasize those non-fictional details.
In any case, I hope that you’ll enjoy to some degree what I’ll read here – a chapter more or less each day for the next month or so.
So, get ready. Here it is: the opening of The Pope, His Chamberlain, the Jinetera, and Fidel.
(By the way, as a work still in progress, the book begs for suggestions about improving or changing it. So feel free to offer advice.)
A few days ago, I received a disturbing email blast from Lyle Roelofs, the president of Berea College (where I taught for 40 years). It was about recent “Events in Cuba.” The notice was upsetting because it reflected the one-sided narrative of the U.S. government and its subservient mass media.
This is not to vilify Berea’s president who is sincere and well-intentioned. It is however to demonstrate the effectiveness of U.S. anti-Cuban propaganda that would have even academicians think that “our” government has a leg to stand on in its denunciation of anti-democratic measures anywhere, of intolerance of any dissent, or of police attacks on peaceful protestors.
See for yourself. In his characteristic spirit of compassion, the president had written:
Many of you are aware of the ongoing unrest in Cuba as the country struggles with severe blackouts, a food shortage, high prices, lack of access to COVID-19 vaccinations as outbreaks increase, and an unstable economy. Residents of the island nation have taken to the streets to protest, filming conditions to share with the world. In response, the repressive government shut down the internet.
While we all care about the people of Cuba as our fellow human beings, a number of members of our immediate community have family ties there, as well, so our concern extends particularly to them in this worrisome time.
President Biden addressed the situation on Monday urging Cuban leaders to hear the people and address their needs rather than enriching themselves or trying to repress their human rights.
At Berea College, where one of our eight Great Commitments calls for us to create a democratic society, we align ourselves with the people of Cuba and echo the President’s sentiments. In a democratic society, organizations and the government can cooperate to address the sorts of critical problems currently being faced by Cubans, but which are found to a lesser extent elsewhere as well. For example, at Berea College our Grow Appalachia program combats food insecurity in Appalachia working to ensure community members have enough to eat and teaching them how to grow their own food.
Globally, the U.S. and Cuba are among the countries that signed the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, a list of 30 rights that every human being is entitled to. The right to free speech and health are most relevant to the current events in Cuba. It is our hope that tensions will ease soon, the leadership there will work to provide food, access to vaccines, and make improvements to stabilize the country’s economy, and that this crisis will be an opportunity for improved relations with other countries, including our own, allowing urgently needed assistance to flow to the people of Cuba.
In solidarity with Cubans and Cuban-Americans,
What follows is my response in hopes that it might help Dr. Roelofs and the rest of us to be more cautious in accepting party lines about “official enemies” such as Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, China, Russia. . .
It was with rather eager anticipation that I opened your recently emailed note entitled “Events in Cuba.” Because of Berea’s commitment black, brown and impoverished communities, I thought your notice would express solidarity with virtually the entire world in its yearly demand that the United States lift the Cuban embargo (Cubans call it a “blockade”) especially in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead, I found your comments quite incomplete and misleading. Together they gave the erroneous impression that:
- All Cubans (“residents of the island nation”) endorse the anti-government street demonstrations
- That Cuban leadership is ignoring the COVID-19 pandemic
- That the same leadership is resisting improved relations with other countries including the United States
- That Cuba should combat the island’s food insecurity by teaching people “how to grow their own food”
- That Cuba is out-of-step with the United Nations and its “Declaration of Human Rights” by specifically depriving its people of health care
- That President Biden has satisfactorily “addressed the situation on Monday urging Cuban leaders to hear the people and address their needs rather than enriching themselves or trying to repress their human rights.”
Such commentary appears to simply repeat the U.S. official story about Cuba without even once mentioning:
- The U.S. economic embargo of more than 60 years
- The blockade’s intensification under President Trump
- That the Biden administration has kept all of the restrictions in place despite the pandemic and the president’s campaign promises
- The resulting devastating effects of those measures
- Cuba’s world-renowned health care system
- Its development (unique in the former colonies) of several WHO-approved COVID-19 vaccines
- The U.S. policy of blockading sale of syringes to Cuba thereby preventing the country from administering its own COVID-19 remedies
- Cuba’s long-standing attempts to feed its own people by extensive, government sanctioned urban gardening projects and by environmental policies that make it arguably the greenest country in the hemisphere
- The fact that similar demonstrations are happening all over the world including U.S. allies such as Brazil, South Africa, Haiti, Lebanon, Colombia, India, Ethiopia, Israel, Iraq, and Afghanistan (not to mention Black Lives Matter in the U.S. and the January 6th assault on the Capitol) — without comment on your part or emphasis in the mainstream media at large
- The allied fact that “a number of members of our immediate community have family ties” in the countries just mentioned.
I am making these observations as a longtime friend of Cuba and (of course) Berea College. I have visited the island many times, never as a tourist, but always as an educator and researcher. In fact, the last course I taught at Berea (Summer 2014) had my wife Peggy and me leading another study tour of Cuba.
I have published many articles on Cuba including here and here about the country’s vaccine research and development. My daughter was treated for appendicitis while visiting Cuba two years ago. After spending five days in the hospital there, she was released virtually free of charge.
With Jose Gomariz (a Cubanist scholar, Jose Marti specialist, and former Berea College professor of Spanish) I once taught a Berea Short Term course at Havana’s Instituto de Historia de Cuba. The course was entitled “The African Diaspora in Cuba.” When I visited Cuba with the Greater Cincinnati Council of World Affairs, I was befriended by a family outspokenly and fearlessly critical of the Castro government. And in my many stints with the Latin American Studies Program of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, we took students to Cuba each semester to meet government officials, opposition forces, and diplomats at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. In all, I’ve been there around a dozen times.
During the Fidel Castro years, I vividly recall a U.S. Interests Section spokeswoman revealingly lamenting the fact that Cuba (as she put it) did not hold presidential elections (thereby demonstrating her misunderstanding of Cuba’s electoral system). “As everybody knows,” she admitted, “he’d win hands down.”
What I’m suggesting is that there is much more to the Cuban story than we’re led to believe by United States propaganda against that beleaguered country.
By simply rehearsing the U.S. official story, Lyle, I suggest that (uncharacteristically) you are not helping the Berea community understand Cuba, its history, and the role of the U.S. in creating misery there, or what our government could do this very day to relieve it – namely lift the embargo and allow the import of syringes into the country.
Respectfully, Mike Rivage-Seul
While those interviewed by Ms. Goodman called for early and affordable access to inoculations in the Global South, no mention was made of perhaps the most promising source of such therapies. The neglected source was not only promising, but implicitly revealed the swindle represented by Big Pharma’s anticipated exorbitant prices for Covid-19 vaccines.
It may surprise readers to know that the source in question is Cuba.
In fact, Cuba is the first nation in Latin America to receive authorization from the World Health Organization (WHO) to perform officially sanctioned tests of the four vaccines it now has under development. Those trials have already completed their clinical stages. Promising results so far have Cubans looking forward to completing the (cost free) inoculation of its entire population of 12 million by the end of March 2021.
The vaccines under trial are named Soberana 01, Soberana 02, Abdala (CIGB66) and Mambisa (CIGB669). None of them is dependent for its preservation on super-cold temperatures.
Mambisa is worthy of special note, since as a nasal spray, it requires no needles, but responds locally to the specifically respiratory nature of Covid-19.
Failure to report such developments even on “Democracy Now” illustrates the complicity of our mainstream media in shunning any news from socialist nations like Cuba that might possibly illustrate the superior ability of their economies to deliver high quality, no-cost healthcare to citizens even during a worldwide pandemic. Moreover, absent the profit motive, Cuba will predictably deliver its vaccines to its neighbors at vastly cheaper prices than its capitalist counterparts.
Cuba’s Vaccine History
This prediction is based on the fact that Cuba has long been a supplier of vaccines and doctors not only to the Global South, but to countries such as Italy during the height of Covid-19’s first wave. Additionally, with its unequaled ratio of doctors to citizens, the island nation’s response to the pandemic has effectively limited documented coronavirus infections despite supply problems caused by the continued U.S. embargo of the island.
All four developments (the superabundance of doctors, the relative control of Covid-19, Cuba’s research capacities, and the export of medical care to other countries) result from the foresight and vision of Fidel Castro, the revered father of his country. In the early 1980s he sparked initiation of a vigorous homegrown biotech sector – largely to cope with the U.S. embargo’s persistent attempts to deprive the island of medical supplies.
The result was the emergence of 20 research centers and 32 companies employing 20,000 people under the umbrella of the state-run BioCubaFarma Corporation. Recently, spokespersons connected with the corporation tweeted, “The #CubanVaccineCOVID19 is dedicated to the sower of dreams: Fidel. Our tribute to the one who believed in the strength and future of #CubanScience.”
BioCubaFarma produces 8 of the 12 vaccines Cuba uses to immunize its own population against diseases such as measles and polio. Cuba has also exported hundreds of millions of vaccine doses to more than 40 countries (e.g. to deal with meningitis and hepatitis B).
All of this represents just one more illustration of socialism’s comparative efficiency in the face of crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. Even a poor blockaded country like Cuba can respond to an unprecedented crisis such as the coronavirus without holding sick people hostage to the confiscatory demands of privatized natural monopolies like Big Pharma. The latter’s claims to mammoth profits based upon (largely government-funded) costly research are simply ideological cover for overweening corporate greed that none of us should stand for.
People’s vaccines can be produced at warp speed and at low cost – despite news blackouts even on “Democracy Now.”
They’re at it again – red-baiting Bernie Sanders. Because the senator from Vermont has (like President Obama) recognized the educational achievements of the Cuban Revolution, he’s being attacked as an apologist for brutal dictatorships everywhere. The syndrome played out in yesterday’s episode of “The View,” and last night in the South Carolina debate.
It’s all so tiresome – so 20th century, so chauvinistic.
It also contradicts my own personal experience of Cuba over many years of visiting the island, where Fidel Castro remains as revered as George Washington here in the United States. By most on the island, he’s considered the father of his country. (I remember a U.S. embassy official in Cuba lamenting to my students that if free and fair presidential elections were held there, Castro would win “hands down.”)
However, more recently still, such demonization of Cuba and Fidel Castro flies in the face of an experience my daughter and her husband had of the Cuban healthcare system just two weeks ago. I want to share that story with you. It sheds light not only on Cuba and Castro, but on Medicare for All.
But before I get to it, consider the attacks on Mr. Sanders.
According to the simple-minded received wisdom here in the U.S., no one is allowed to tell the truth about a designated enemy. That is, you can’t say anything good about any government that refuses obedience to U.S. empire. And that’s true even if, like Cuba, the said government provides enviable education and childcare, or if health services are free there for everyone.
Meanwhile, to say anything bad about a “friend” – apartheid Israel for example – is absolutely forbidden. As an international outlaw, Israel can transgress UN resolutions against its illegal occupation of Palestinian territories. It can even kill with abandon peaceful protestors including Palestinian children, the elderly and disabled. However, to criticize it for doing so – to propose boycotting, divesting, or sanctioning Israel’s internationally proscribed occupation of Palestinian territories – is not only unacceptable but actually forbidden by law.
(In case you haven’t noticed: no debate participant has or will ever accuse anyone on stage of supporting a “brutal dictatorship” in Israel – or in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Brazil, Honduras, Hungary, Turkey . . .)
I mean, instead of thinking critically or just recognizing undeniable facts, U.S. citizens and candidates for public office are virtually commanded to see and describe the world in terms of good/bad, black/white, friends/enemies, vendors/customers. To make even unsubtle distinctions in those regards is beyond the pale. In terms of electability, its’ the kiss of death.
To put it kindly, such thinking is not only simple-minded; it is childish. It’s insulting. It dumbs us all down and makes us stupid pawns of publicists and propagandists supporting reflexive U.S. ideology.
As a result of such stupidity, Bernie Sanders had to limit his “defense” of Fidel Castro to acknowledging the virtues of teaching people to read and write. He could easily have added points about free education through university level and praise for Cuba’s medical system that provides healthcare for everyone on the island – including visitors from other countries. However, to do so would have opened him to attacks alleging that his free college tuition and Medicare for All programs will inevitably lead to the Cubanization of America.
Not even Bernie Sanders has that much courage.
Healthcare in Cuba: A Recent Experience
And that brings me to the personal story I promised earlier. Just two weeks ago, it involved my daughter, Maggie, and her husband, Kerry as they led a weekend excursion to Cuba.
The junket was the payoff of a fund-raising project for our local Montessori school in Wilton, CT which our daughter’s five children have attended. At an auction held for its benefit, Maggie and Kerry had “sold” the trip to several parental teams. That was last fall.
So come early February, everyone went off to Cuba, even though Maggie was feeling poorly from the outset.
By the time the group arrived in Havana, our daughter was experiencing severe stomach pain that literally brought her to her knees. The next thing she knew, she was being whisked off in a cramped taxi to the Clinica Central Cira Garcia, Havana’s “hospital for tourists.”
There, admissions officials checked very carefully to see that Maggie and Kerry had the required health “insurance” which is included in the purchase price of airline tickets to the island. Then, following an x-ray, our daughter was informed that she was having an appendicitis attack and that an immediate operation was imperative.
The long and short of it is that the laparoscopic appendectomy took place, that hospital care was excellent, and that it cost her and her husband not a dime for the operation or for her five days in the hospital. (They were however charged $50 for each of the two nights Kerry stayed overnight there, and a few dollars for laundry.) In other words, the operation had been paid for by the airline ticket “insurance” which was really a tax on all travelers pooled to meet the cost of health emergencies like the one I just described.
The same procedure in the United States would have cost on average $33,000.
The point here is twofold. The first is that “Americans” need to exit the 20th century once and for all.
Cuba is not our enemy. In fact, it never was until U.S. policy (intolerant of people-friendly socialism) made it so. Moreover, Fidel Castro remains a hero to most Cubans and to most informed people in the Global South. His “repressive” policies were absolutely necessary to protect his country from actual U.S. invasion (e.g. the Bay of Pigs in 1961), from numerous CIA attempts to assassinate him, and from a 60-year long embargo intended to undermine Cuba’s economy, including its health and education programs.
To understand that point, think about our own country’s response to 9/11. Think about the Patriot Act, about resulting restrictions on travel, about Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, imprisonment without trial, torture of suspected terrorists, and extra-judicial drone killings even of U.S. citizens. Think about the panopticon surveillance systems uncovered by Edward Snowden. Think about encouragement to inform on neighbors and others.
Were those responses to 9/11 brutal and repressive? No doubt, they appeared that way to their victims. But undeniably it’s what governments do under threat from external enemies and their internal agents. In that regard, the U.S. is no different from Cuba. George W. Bush, Trump – or Obama for that matter – are no different from Castro, except in their wider swath of brutality.
The second point is that Cuba’s social system as experienced by our daughter is unprecedented in the impoverished world of former colonies. No other victim of colonialism has been as committed to caring for its people, its children, or its environment as Cuba. But instead of being rewarded for such achievements, it is consistently vilified by U.S. politicians and a mainstream media stuck in Cold War thinking.
Thank God that the Sanders revolution invites us to leave all of that behind. His opponents should follow suit.