2012-04-12 / Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo
Praying to Ratzinger behind the bars of the revolution
San Lazaro's Day
The prison guards had a radio on. It was a small transistor radio - an obsolete thing like everything else in the Police Station of La Regla, a town across the Havana bay.
The interrogation offices were decorated in an antiquated style typical for Soviet-like political propaganda: Pictures of the assault on the Moncada Barracks, of the Granma yacht landing, of Che Guevara's bandaged arm, of the wide-brimmed hat of the disappeared Comandante Camilo... all the icons of the beginning of the Revolution, and all of them bearing Fidel Castro's quotes.
The walls of the prison glowed with a fresh coat of paint. In a way, it seemed as if they painted the prison in my honour, which filled me with horror. Down in the barred basement, behind the giant padlocks, I got an inconsolable feeling of loneliness. I had no criminal record and this was the first time I was put to jail. In fact, they caught me like a wild animal in a hunt. I was arrested in the street but there no criminal charges were made against me. The task force that took me in did not identify themselves, they didn't inform my family or friends, they had no legal authorization to detain me and keep me in prison for two days – the two days that Pope Benedict XVI spent on a visit to Havana – a bizarre event of beatitude and barbarism mixed together. Or, if you like, downright Kafkaesque reality on the shores of the Caribbean Sea.
On Tuesday morning, March 29, the day of the Pope's mass in the Plaza de la Revolucion, the Cuban capital woke up to a nightmare: The whole city was under control of agents and officers, both uniformed and in civilian clothes. They caused traffic jam. They intimidated and arbitrarily detained countless independent journalists, human rights activists, political opponents, as well as beggars and vendors without licenses. And they did all of this before the very eyes of international press correspondents, who were concentrating all their attention on the figure of Joseph Ratzinger, standing in front of his altar, and on facial expressions that the President Raul Castro made at each word of subtle meaning in the Pope's homily.
Days before that, state telephone companies, ETECSA and CUBACEL, participated in the operation, which was unofficially called “Vote of Silence”, by blocking thousands of telephone lines - without any technical reason, without prior notice and with no right to compensation. Even the highly limited internet services, which are available in Cuba only to two privileged groups – foreigners and elite officials, were cut.
From the very beginning of my imprisonment, I stopped eating and drinking water. I also tried not to pay much attention to the provocation of a State Security attorney, who reminded me of a character from Minority Report. To fill up the time before the Pope takes off to Vatican, he accused me of an alleged “subversive activity” and “public scandal”, for which he didn't need any proof. H. G. Wells's time machine kept by the Cuban counter-intelligence organization in the Museum of the Cold War has apparently retained all its functions intact. I wonder why they don't rename the organization to “Cuban counter-citizen forces”.
Thus, only the small battery-operated radio from the socialist times kept me in touch with the rest of the world beyond the bars of the modern catacombs in which I was imprisoned. Radio broadcasting was the only way I could learn about the passing of time during my imprisonment, which turned to something like the longest dawn in my life. I already started to feel weakness in the muscles and lack of glucose in the brain, when I finally heard the liturgical songs sung during the only hijacked Mass in the history of Catholicism.
It was a sad scene. The Mass was attended by atheist workers, Marxist-Leninist or rather Stalinist labour unionists, not to mention State Security members disguised as Red Cross staff or, who knows, maybe even altar boys. The parishes were denied the right to freely decide which parishioners would go to the Mass as there were “black lists” of people and if anybody's name was on this list, the person would be instantly dropped off the official bus - the only means of accessing the Plaza de la Revolucion, where the Mass was celebrated. The famous square, whose podium has so many times in history turned to a tribunal of blind masses led by their supreme leader (whom the Catholic Church excommunicated dozens of years ago), hysterically chanting “Death to traitors.”
The Mass served by Benedict XVI seemed endless. By instinct, I knelt and prayed. It was my first time in prison and I didn't pray to God, but to Joseph Ratzinger himself. I implored him to make his speech shorter, to skip the formalities of the Eucharistic liturgy, I begged that he wouldn't extend the meeting between the Catholic Church and the Communist Party prescribed by the diplomatic protocol, I prayed that he wouldn't return the victimizing smiles of the Cardinal de Cuba, I wished that the Pope-mobile could speed him off directly from the altar to the Havana international airport and, if it's not heresy, I also prayed that the Holy Father would never again accept an invitation that would lead to suppression of poor people in this or any other country-prison.