Keeler slips into Cuban city to deliver medicine for poor News of cardinal's arrival spreads fast through Pinar del Rio

January 01, 1998|By Rosie Hayes | Rosie Hayes,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba -- Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler came face to face yesterday with Cuba's poverty and deprivation.

He came to this decaying city about 100 miles from Havana carrying medicine to people who have prescriptions but nowhere to get them filled.

Keeler brought about $200,000 worth of medication with him as part of his three-day mission to Cuba, which will culminate today when he celebrates a New Year's Day Mass at Havana Cathedral.

Pinar del Rio is one of Cuba's richest tobacco-growing areas. The country's 100 million cigars for export are produced from leaves grown here, but the town of 150,000 doesn't have much to show for it.

Keeler's presence in the city -- to deliver medicine, visit with his friend Jose Siro Gonzalez, the bishop of Pinar del Rio, and to celebrate midnight Mass last night in the main church -- was not widely advertised.

But news that an important American Roman Catholic prelate had arrived with medicine spread quickly. It drew people to the headquarters of the Cuban Catholic aid agency, Caritas Cuba, which Siro heads.

Manuel Martinez came along with many others clutching prescriptions for their families.

He said he knew he could count on the bishop's house to get medicine for his 6-year-old daughter, Jessica, who suffers from a skin infection.

Martinez was unaware of Keeler's visit, but he knew that "sometime they give away medicine here."

One woman came looking for antibiotics for her 85-year-old mother, who is ill in Havana and unable to go out and look for medicine in the capital.

"I know I can get it here," said Nievea Leon, a gardener. "There's nowhere else I can go for it."

Keeler, dressed in his formal black suit and clerical collar, watched as the distribution went on at the Caritas Cuba headquarters against a backdrop of crowded streets and horse-drawn carts.

He said he saw "the church again trying to serve the people -- meeting the humanitarian needs. Caritas is operating a kind of pharmacy here."

Siro seemed reluctant to talk, but he offered thanks to Keeler, whom he met on a visit to Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services.

"The people of Pinar del Rio greatly appreciate the U.S. cardinal who brought medicine for them and in person," he said.

Pinar del Rio is practically a metaphor for Cuba's condition since the collapse of the Soviet Union ended Soviet assistance to the island ruled by Fidel Castro.

As he entered the city yesterday, Keeler passed billboards extolling the revolution that President Fidel Castro's forces won almost four decades ago. Produce more with greater efficiency, the billboards urged.

The most striking billboard on the highway into the city has a large picture of Castro as a young victorious soldier with the words "Patria o Muerte. Venceremos" : Fatherland or Death. We will overcome.

The city is full of Spanish colonial buildings in desperate need of repairs.

People live in bungalows with a stream of cables connecting them to a telephone system that doesn't function most of the time and to electricity that is often off.

Dilapidated cars traveled through the streets, alongside bicyclists crisscrossing in front of the van that brought Keeler.

Keeler did get to see another side of Cuba in the afternoon when he and Siro went to have lunch and to prepare for the midnight Mass they would celebrate together.

They traveled about 15 miles to Vinyales, set in a small valley surrounded by stunning hills shaped like cylinders.

One hill towered over the small cafe and the two prelates could see a prehistoric mural painted on it.

The mural's colors of blue, yellow, brown and gray were brilliant in the almost perfect day. Guitarists played in the background.

The revolution seemed a long way away.

Pub Date: 1/01/98

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