The National Catholic Review

"Our daily Mass was at the center of all we did,” said one of the Christian activists who set out for an 11-day pilgrimage to Cuba during the Advent of 2005. It was undertaken as a prayerful protest of the treatment of prisoners held incommunicado at the Guantánamo military base. Those who went had even hoped to be able to speak to some of the prisoners, and they viewed their pilgrimage as one of the corporal works of mercy described at the end of the Gospel of St. Matthew. That particular hope was not realized, but others were.

 

Of the 25 participants, the youngest was 24; the oldest, a nun, was 79. A seemingly frail member of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, it was she who often led the group in their arduous and prayer-filled 65-mile walk from Santiago to Guantánamo.

Soon after their return to the United States, four of the group stopped by America House and provided a detailed account of their experience. Given the strict travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. government, I first asked how they were able get there at all. “We flew from New York by way of the Dominican Republic,” came the answer, “and then from there on to Santiago.” The group had named itself Witness Against Torture, and had its own Web site: www.witnesstorture.org. My visitors spoke with amazement of the fact that they had not only been able to reach Cuba, but had managed to come within view of the Guantánamo military base, reaching the checkpoint leading into the U.S. military zone itself. There, the Cuban authorities allowed them to remain for five days of fasting and keeping vigil.

“Miraculous things happened along the way,” said one visitor. Not the least of them was the inch-by-inch progress made in persuading the puzzled and initially suspicious Cuban authorities to let them set out on their pilgrimage at all after their arrival. After passing through Cuban customs, they met with immigration and other officials to explain the purpose of their journey and the backgrounds of the various Christian groups they represented, such as the Catholic Worker. Though they had tourist visas, it was made clear to them that they could have been immediately deported. In the course of several conversations throughout the trip, however, a certain rapport was created with the officials, so “they gave us an inch.” That initial “inch” was gradually followed by others, which made it possible for them to begin and then continue their journey toward Guantánamo.

The second full day after their arrival started with Mass in a church. It was still dark when they reached its doors, and they wondered whether it was even functioning as a house of worship. But a young man passing by, who recognized them as Americans, assured them it was indeed in active use. A nun in habit opened the door when they knocked, and to their relief and surprise made no objection to their request to celebrate Mass privately among themselves. She asked only that the Jesuit priest with the group, Stephen Kelly, vest for the liturgy. The readings for that second week of Advent and those throughout the journey were in keeping with the season’s spirit of waiting. Especially apt was the first reading for the third Sunday, from Isaiah (61:1-11), with its message of “liberty to the captives and release of the prisoners.”

Only that first Mass was celebrated in a church. Once the walk got under way, the other liturgies took place at the side of the road—sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the evening. Homilies were shared, and when the liturgy could not be celebrated until evening, the Mass readings were read aloud in the morning so that these could become sources of meditation as the silent, single-file walk proceeded. The Rosary too—its use for some was a discovery—became an important aid to their ongoing prayer. One participant in the journey said that the sorrowful mysteries fit in particularly well, “forcing your mind to focus on Christ being humiliated and, by extension, the humiliations endured by the Guantánamo prisoners at the hands of their jailers.”

Word had gotten out about “the Americans,” and so people along the way waved as they passed. “Some laughed that we’d be walking that far, 65 miles, and would say, ‘It’s crazy,’ but they were friendly.” When they passed a rural school, the teacher brought out the children in their uniforms. “They sang songs and gave us fruit and candy made from sugar cane.” Sugar cane fields lined both sides of the road in some places. Although initially denied permission to carry banners, the authorities eventually allowed them to display their anti-torture signs as they walked. They had also been granted permission to camp in the backyards of families whose modest houses they passed, three-room structures of wood and cement. One family with a small child built a fire for them in their yard, and another couple, expecting their first child, had a Sacred Heart image inside, which they brought out for that evening’s backyard Mass.

The local police conducted regular checkups with the families. When this practice began, one in the group said, “We had a panic attack at the thought that we might have violated a rule which could have prevented us from continuing.” In fact, though, the families were simply being told who the travelers were and the purpose of their visit to Cuba. But the higher authorities had by no means forgotten about them either, and appeared from time to time requesting meetings with spokespersons from the group. One top official, a woman named Caridad, flew in from Havana for the purpose. Initially, she told them that the walk would have to end after the fourth day, “but on hearing us out, she decided it ‘would not be just.’”

Caridad’s position hardened at the approach of Dec. 10, recognized in many parts of the world as International Human Rights Day, when a focus on human rights violations in some countries, including Cuba, is common. Cuba’s response to such criticism, my visitors told me, has for years involved a public display of its military power. The date thus represented a tense moment, especially as the group neared the Province of Guantánamo. In the light of such tensions, Caridad did not want the Americans’ presence to be seen as a provocation. Nevertheless, they were allowed to advance to the little town of La Glorieta, where the military checkpoint leading to the U.S. naval base is located.

The walkers displayed their banners and a large cross on the chain link fence at the checkpoint. There a round-the-clock vigil began, divided into two-hour segments for each person, as they prayed and looked toward the distant buildings where the prisoners were being held. The 25 sat in a semicircle, with evening Mass marking the conclusion of each of those final days. Cuban military officers watched and occasionally filmed them: “They seemed fascinated.” The vigilers took turns reading the personal accounts of the mistreatment to which individual prisoners had been subjected. The accounts had been obtained by Amnesty International. One prisoner was only 15 years old when he was first imprisoned. According to the visitors at America House, in that particular Amnesty account the youth was forced to urinate on himself, was then doused with liquid pine disinfectant, and finally was made to serve as a human mop to clean up his own urine. He was afterwards left in his soaked clothes for four days. “Each of us took one of the accounts and read it over and over on a given day, so you got to know that person’s story very well,” as yet another form of meditation in keeping with the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary.

Secrecy still surrounds the detained population, so it is unknown how many remain confined at Guantánamo. Just before the group arrived in Cuba, a delegation from the United Nations was scheduled to visit the base, but on being informed that it would not be given full access to the prisoners, it canceled its trip. Although not allowed to conduct interviews with prisoners, the International Red Cross has at least been allowed into the detention facility. But it is not permitted to issue reports on its visits.

On their return to Santiago after the vigil at the Guantánamo checkpoint ended, an official who had seen them on Cuban television with their banners and signs, said: “What you have done is legally impossible in Cuba.” But for the participants, the fact that they had gotten as far as they did was simply evidence of “the power of prayer—our own and that of the people at home praying for us.” Many Cubans saw the same television program, and stopped them on the street to greet them on the final day in Santiago before their flight back to the Dominican Republic and then home.

As intense as the entire visit was, there were mood-lightening moments too. The young man who directed them to the church for Mass on their second day, for example, asked nothing in return but a T-shirt—one that had on it, he explained, “American propaganda.” A member of the group accordingly gave him a T-shirt of his own marked with the insignia of the Detroit Tigers. Another light moment occurred when a returning participant was greeted at the Santiago airport by the same young customs official who had inspected him on his arrival 11 days before. At that time, the young official had no idea what the group represented. Now, having seen him and the others on television too, he asked with a sly smile: “So, how was your trip?”

From a vendor in the same airport, one of the group bought an image of Mary made of the humblest of materials: a burned out light bulb with its metal bottom section carefully sawed off. Inside was a small image of the Nuestra Señora del Cobre, named after a famous sanctuary dedicated to Mary in the mining town of El Cobre, near Santiago. From their ongoing use of the Rosary, the participants had clearly felt Mary’s supportive presence in her various forms, including that of Nuestra Señora del Cobre, throughout the 11 days of their journey.

George M. Anderson, S.J., is an associate editor of America.