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  • AMA A TU PRÓJIMO

    Love thy Fellow Man

    On the heights above the town of Casa Blanca, across Havana Bay from the city and visible from many places along the waterfront, stands El Cristo de la Habana, or Christ of Havana. It is shorter and not nearly as famous as Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, but it might be a more tenacious symbol of christianity.

    Funds for the creation of the statue were raised by Marta Fernandez de Batista, wife of then-president Fulgencio Batista. It was sculpted in Italy by a Cuban named Jilma Madera from 67 blocks of Carrara marble that were blessed by Pope Pius XII before being shipped to Cuba for installation. The statue was inaugurated on Christmas Eve of 1958 with the Batistas in attendance; one week later they would flee the island as Fidel Castro overthrew the government.

    The statue could have been viewed as a high profile vestige of the Batista regime that the new ruler might have wanted to erase from the City's skyline. And although Castro was raised as a Catholic, the church soon fell out of favor with the new government. Dictators succeed when people have no alternative institutions such as organized religion to turn to, and so for many years all denominations were ostracized. Parochial schools were closed in favor of a state-controlled education system, and professed believers were not allowed to join the Communist party, thus preventing them from getting good jobs. Yet Fidel allowed the statue to remain.

    Next door to Christo is a lovely hacienda-style house with a spectacular view of Havana. It was probably appropriated by the Castro government from its rightful owner, perhaps a wealthy Cuban who opposed the new regime, or an executive of a US company that had been doing business in Cuba. Fidel gave the house to Che Guevara, whose first job after the revolution was supervising the arrest, conviction, and execution of over 150 former officials of the Batista regime. Che later admitted that the guilt of many of those executed was less certain than were their deaths. The executions were often carried out by firing squads at the La Cabaña fortress, conveniently located just down the road from Che's house.

    My synthesis of these facts is that the shadow of Cristo loomed over Che in the mornings as he walked to his car to drive over to La Cabaña to have people killed, which must have annoyed him. Much that annoyed Che came to bad ends, but when he left Cuba in 1965, Jesus still stood on the hill. Throughout the decades of the Castro regime the repression of the Church slowly eased. Pope John Paul visited Cuba in 1998, and posters of that event are still proudly displayed in many places in Havana. The statue was restored in 2013 by Raul Castro's government, and was this time blessed by the archbishop of Havana.

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