Adventures in acquiring a Cuban visa

In a month Pope Francis will celebrate Mass from an altar on Ben Franklin Parkway. It will be his final public appearance of an “apostolic visit” that will have taken him to Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Washington D.C. and New York before his arrival in Philadelphia.

I’m one of a handful of American journalists who’ll be traveling with Francis on his planes as he goes from city to city.

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Lucky me. I’ve been The Inquirer’s religion reporter since 1995, the year I first covered a papal visit: John Paul’s visit to New York City. I traveled to Havana in ’98 when he made his historic visit there – some of the hardest work and most fun of my career up to that time – and followed Pope Benedict’s visits to New York and Washington in, I think, 2008.

But this will be my first time on what I like to call the “popemoplane.” I will discuss my hopes and trepidations about that trip in a subsequent post. Suffice it to say they have to do with how much print journalism has changed during the past 18 years. A single, big, end-of-the-day mainbar no longer suffices in this age of 24-hour news coverage, tweets and Facebook and blogs, so how do we tell the story of a papal visit in 2015?

But enough of that for now. Today, in my first posting to The Inquirer’s and Philly.com’s new “Following Francis” blog, I’m taking readers on the first of my adventures related to the papal visit.

Today we journey to fetch my Cuban visa. It was more complicated than I expected - which is just what I expected.

So.

A few weeks ago the Vatican Press Office notified the 70 or 80 journalists traveling in the Vatican Accredited Media Pool (yes, it’s called the VAMP} that it would arrange Cuban visas for us. A short time later we American reporters got urgent sounding emails saying we MUST tell them within three days if we wanted to pick our visas up at the Cuban embassy in New York or in Washington. Sure. Fine. I told them I’d go to New York.

Then, this past Monday, I received notice that I was to get my visa in… D.C.

Well, OK. The Vatican Press Office runs these trips.

But how exactly would this work? When I went to Cuba in ’98, American journalists had to go through the Swiss embassy because the U.S. had no diplomatic relations with the Castro regime. Just a month ago, however, the two countries established diplomatic relations, and the new Cuban ambassador and his staff reopened the embassy on 16th Street -- their embassy since 1911 --- which had been shuttered soon after the Cuban revolution of 1960.

Not sure whom to see or when I should present myself, I started making calls to the embassy on Tuesday. What I got was a voicemail recording of a pleasant sounding woman speaking in heavily accented English and offering a range of cryptic options, one of which had to do with returning the remains of dead folks to Cuba. I was then invited to press this number or that that, but each time I pressed what seemed a plausible number I was told “I’m sorry, that number is not a valid option.” Even the number for returning dead bodies was not a valid option. Oy.

I then tried their website, which looks handsome and inviting, but each clickable option took me to a page that read “Server not found.” So it seems that after a month they are, understandably, still settling in.

Eventually I managed to leave a voice mail saying I’d like to come down for my visa, and could someone please call me about this? I also learned that the embassy keeps hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., but that their consulate was open only from 9 a.m. to noon. OK, but which one handles visas: the embassy or the consulate? I couldn’t tell, and decided just to head down Friday morning.

From home, I took a train and subway to Amtrak’s 30th Street Station, arriving 11:10, missing a DC departure by seven minutes. Bought tickets at the counter and was told next train would leave at 12:05. Took a seat in the great waiting room, pulled out Austen Ivereigh’s fine biography of Pope Francis titled The Great Reformer, and settled in. At 11:55 got on line for my train, but just as I was about to step onto the escalator the Amtrak attendant told me my ticket was not for this train, and directed me back to the ticket counter. What? Turns out the ticket agent had sold me a ticket from New York (???) to Washington. And by the time I got a new one, the 12:05 was a shrinking light in the distance.

So, for the next hour I read still more about the good Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires (Francis’ name before he became pope,) and at 1 p.m. boarded my train.

Got to Union Station around 2:45, took a cab to the embassy, and discovered a stately, columned building surrounded by a tall iron fence close along the sidewalk. Asked my driver to wait, pushed the little button by a narrow gate in the fence, and waited.

Nada.

Pushed again.

Nada.

I strolled left and right, hoping for some other entrance or mode of contact, but finding none I was just getting back in the cab when a young woman appeared at the door and walked to the gate.

I introduced myself. She recognized my name from my voicemail message, and said she had left me a voicemail message in reply. But it turned out she had called a phone I no longer use - one she had got from the Vatican press office. And so sorry, she said, but the consulate handles visas, and they are closed for the day.

Could I come back tomorrow?

Yikes, says I. Not really.

Ah, she said. “Let me see what I can do. You do have a postal money order, yes?” I said a what? She said a postal money order. I said I had cash. She said no, no: a postal money order.

I said OK, I will find a post office, and she – her name was Celine, the voice on the embassy’s voice mail - said she would see if the consulate would process my visa, even though they were closed.

My cabbie located a post office on his GPS, about five blocks away, and off we went. No, the clerk said, they don’t take credit cards for money orders. But I’d had a hunch I might need cash, and so I’d brought $100 with me. Paid it, got the money order, and driver and I zoomed back to the consulate. Celine let me in. I gave her my passport, and she disappeared behind a door.

Let’s just say the Cuban consulate, one month or so after its reopening, possesses what might be called a socialist revolutionary simplicity. The empty room where I waited consisted of six black plastic chairs, a faux wooden floor, a counter, and some windows to another room where three or four people were working.

On their wall was a large poster of Fidel Castro in full, bushy beard, probably taken when he was still in his 40s, and a smaller, faded-to-blue poster of Che Guevarra, the great hero-martyr of the Cuban revolution whom none of you under the age of 40 reading this have probably ever heard of. Once a great icon to many American lefties of the “Sixties”, Che in his iconic beret and beard looked surprisingly frail and remote now. It had me wondering if these very dated posters had been on the wall since the consular staff vacated the place more than four decades ago. Or did the new staff perhaps bring them from Cuba last month and pin them up to show visitors that the fervor and values and heroes of la rebolucion still obtained? I did not ask.

In about 10 minutes Celine reappeared with my visa: a slip of paper I gather I was to just tuck into my passport and hope doesn’t fall out.

We chatted on the way out. Celine, who appeared to be about 30, said she’d been here a month and that it was an “exciting time” for Cuba, what with Kerry there a few weeks ago to open the US embassy in Havana, and Pope Francis coming in less than a month.

Alas, my cab wasn’t there, even though I’d asked the driver (Sam) to wait, but I had his phone number. I called, he showed up in about five minutes, and I was at Union Station in time to catch my train. So the day worked, though not easily. A typical day on the road.

Let me finish by saying that when I visited Cuba in ’98 I was very touched by the kindness and warmth of the Cuban people. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a people who rejoiced so much in one anothers’ company, greeting one another on the streets, laughing and smiling and chatting with one another at restaurants, or sitting on the stoops of their homes and talking with such palpable affection. I devoutly hope that big, shared affection remains in Cuba despite its desperate poverty. I could even see it, I think, in the very joyful, buoyant way that the consular staff behind the windows joked and laughed and talked with one another as I waited for my visa. And I think the very fact that Celine and they would make the effort to help me get my visa -- even though they had closed shop for the day -- reveals the generosity of so many of the Cuban people.

I do expect that Francis will call on the United States, obliquely perhaps, to engage economically with Cuba in ways that it has not for so may decades.

So there you are. Future blogs will, I trust, be shorter than this first one. Hope they engage