On the evening of June 20, in the fading humid twilight at the close of an exhilarating day with its “invisible energy” at the Ecumenical Celebration in Revolution Square, Carlos Ham drove us along boulevards through the once splendor of an upscale Havana neighborhood to the palatial convention center where Fidel holds state events and receptions. From the parking lot we entered a grand foyer where we parted company. I was directed to a room to leave my camera and then stood in the reception line leading to where Fidel was “receiving.” I had no idea where Carlos went.
Fidel greeted each international guest individually. We shook hands. Here I was standing eye to eye with Fidel–being the same height–almost as casually as one greets one’s pastor after the Sunday eleven o’clock service, yet with my insides doing flip-flops not sure what to say. I simply sputtered, “I wish you good health and a long life.” He smiled as his photographer took a picture of the two of us. I often wondered in what file that picture ended up!
I moved to an airy area with two large rooms, each with a huge table burgeoning with a magnificent spread of Cuban edible delicacies and libations no ordinary Cuban had seen in years. Both rooms were filled with guests from around the world, but I did not see my friend or anyone I recognized. I helped myself to a small plate of food and took the requisite Mohito. I stood off by self and began to munch on the goodies.
After a while, Fidel comes unaccompanied into the area where I munched. When he saw me in my clerical collar standing alone he gave a momentary glance of recognition and came over. He said something in Spanish, which I did not understand. He pointed to my Mohito, commented and laughed. I had no idea what he said, but I figured if El Presidente laughed, it was proper for me to laugh too, which I did.
He then reached up and patted me on my right shoulder and said in fluent English, “God Bless you, Sir.” Not missing a beat I reciprocated with a pat on his right shoulder and responded in my best Mississippi drawl, “God Bless you too, Sir.” He then simply smiled and walked away. I took a healthy slug of my Mohito!
In a few minutes one of Fidel’s aids came out to find me. He said I was in the wrong room and escorted me to a smaller room off to the side with a smaller replica of the table of food and drinks I just left. Twenty-five or thirty people were busily engaged in conversation, including my friend that brought me. Special guests were Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in Christ U.S.A.; Rev. Lucius Walker from Pastors for Peace; and Rev. Pablo Oden Marichal, president of the Cuban Council of Churches, who preached at the Celebration that morning.
At some earlier event Fidel had for some reason snubbed Campbell and spent considerable time complimenting Walker for what Walker was doing on Cuba’s behalf. Word got back to Fidel of his earlier slight and he took this opportunity to make amends. Fidel arranged for three chairs to be set in a conspicuous place on one side of the room for him to sit with Campbell and an interpreter. We watched him for fifty minutes or so play nice with Campbell. She responded with diplomatic grace to his gesture.
After they returned to the middle of the room Fidel sought out Rev. Marichal and for another hour Fidel critiqued the morning’s sermon with the preacher as if he were grading a seminarian’s senior sermon. Well after midnight Fidel finally slipped away signaling the “grand theater of the absurd,” some might chirp, was over.
We quietly filed out of this impressive place into the steamy darkness of the parking lot to our cars, each with our own thoughts about what just happened. Carlos drove us in his modest Russian Ladda through the dark deserted streets of Havana back to the reality of Luyano Presbyterian Church. My goose bumps began to subside as I wondered what would be the reaction if we stopped and told someone walking down the street that we had just come from a social reception with Fidel. No one was in sight.
Now sixteen years later in retrospect I pinch myself still wondering what I really experienced that night. All of a sudden it is 2015. Raul succeeded Fidel. This past December President Obama took steps to begin reestablishing diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. Banking and economic development systems rattle into action. All sorts of groups rush to the island to see “what it looked like all these years” before Cuba joins the clutter of 21st century “progress.” Soccer teams schedule matches. Cuba is taken off list of Terrorist Countries. Embassies are set to open in each other’s country. U. S. Legislators dance around lifting the embargo and other travel restrictions. So many barriers yet to breach.
U.S-Cuban Presbyterian partnerships still flourish as they have since the late 1980s. Each Sunday Hector Mendez stands behind the very pulpit in First Havana that had its moment in the sun on June 20, 1999. Carlos Ham returns to Cuba to be President of the Seminary in Matanzas after decade of service at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. Jo Ella Holman, serving as PC(USA) World Mission’s Liaison for the Caribbean, incorporates in her responsibilities oversight of the Cuba study seminars I conducted as International Volunteer in Mission. What other changes loom in the future?
When I see frail pictures of Fidel these days, half of my good wishes came true–long life, not so much good health. I am not naïve. I realize scores of folk are probably outraged that I would even dare utter such good wishes to one that caused them such pain and suffering in the name of “the Triumph of the Revolution.” I am well aware that many dreamed for years of the opportunity I had “to shoot Fidel at close range”–but not with a camera like I did!
What I witnessed years ago is so true today. The more I see, the less I understand. On an earlier trip I encountered an old Cuban woman that issued me a perceptive yet mystifying commentary on Cuban reality: “Life is a carnival, everything is false, nothing is what it seems to be.” Could it also have been a veiled warning about Fidel?
Cuba is a complex place, with nothing more profound for good or ill than Fidel’s stamp and influence on a half-century’s thought and behavior of that island nation. None of that entered my mind on the night we exchanged blessings. I have no idea what really was in Fidel’s mind.
For a moment all complexities seemed to disappear. Absent were all the dynamic ingredients I deem crucial for reconciliation: no ambitious hint that healing of broken relations begins by facing and overcoming fear of the other; no grand awareness that one-to-one opening of oneself to the other in quiet and unexpected ways might bring out the best in each other, making a difference; no looking deep into the eyes of the other with compassion, telling the truth and searching for understanding; no lofty proclaiming one’s love for one’s neighbor in word much less deed.
In retrospect, what happened on the night of June 20, 1999 was to me elementally un-complex, not without significance, never fully understood. In that fleeting moment we simply shook hands and exchanged blessings with a trace of that “invisible energy”–one human being in touch with another–me and Fidel!
w.g. mcatee, International Volunteer in Mission, Cuba Specialist, PC(USA), 1997-2002