Viva la libertad

Stained glass divider in the Hotel Raquel (Rachel), catering to Jewish guests

Karl Marx said “religion is the opiate of the masses”, and the Soviet Union was famously opposed to all religiousity.  So we tend to think that all communist countries would be the same, but that surely doesn’t seem to be the case here.

The Hotel Raquel, in the heart of Old Havana, caters to Jewish guests, offering “jewish food” (just how kosher that is I can’t say), menorahs in the decor and a heartbreaking painting on the wall of the people on the Saint Louis, the ship full of Jews fleeing 1940 Germany which couldn’t find a landing place anywhere in the new world and had to return to Europe.  I only cried a little seeing it and thinking of Mike Katz, whose parents met on that ship, and were among the lucky to be interned in England, so Mike was born in London.

The Jewish quarter in Havana once held over 40,000 Jews fleeing Germany–although the country denied the Saint Louis landing privileges, it took in many refugees.  There are only about 1500 Jews left in Cuba, and 3 working synagogues, which we will be visiting on this trip.

Today, we passed a Russian Orthodox temple, which was opened within the last 6 months.

We ate dinner in a restaurant in the Plaza de Cathedral.  As we came out, we saw services going on inside, and remembered that today is Ash Wednesday.  There were many, many people inside the cathedral for evening Mass, and I saw two priests separately walking (one talking on his cell phone) as we walked the district this afternoon.

Our guide says that about 47% of the population is Catholic, and that acceptance of religion has increased dramatically since the Pope visited in 1997.

Further odd facts:  we asked the guide today where Fidel lives.  He said nobody knows.  He is reputed to have at least 60 homes spread across the island, and moves among them constantly.  While he is no longer in public life, the guide claimed Fidel is in the Guiness Book as having survived the most assassination attempts–over 600.  That may, of course, be at least partly paranoia.  But it’s pretty clear that there are people who don’t like him–and they usually point the finger straight at Langley, Virginia, home of the CIA.  Maybe it’s true, maybe not.  But you won’t see Fidel just walking around.

Our hotel is full–the European style breakfast buffet this morning was a polyglot crowd, heavy on the German.  From both inside and out, this hotel appears to be at least 25 and maybe 40 years old–yet they swear it opened in 1997.  Maintainance  does not seem to be a priority in this country–tonight I offered to tip our bus driver 10 CUC (the convertible form of the Cuban peso, worth $1.20 apiece) if he would clean all the windows of our bus.  We have a long ride tomorrow, and I’d like to be able to see and photograph out the window.  If you though the photo of Ché was kind of blurry in my last post, shooting through the bus windows was the problem.

And the world continues to amaze me–even though I am using an exceedingly slow dial-up internet connection, I am still able to click on the camera in Fat Slice Pizza and see what is happening in my store real time.  Tomorrow I’ll try to get Skype to work and call home for 2¢/minute, instead of the $1.25/min it would cost otherwise.

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