Cuban man sees pope as 'God on Earth'... 'Father of Cuban people'

Hifilo was one of many departing Pope Francis' Mass after Communion, walking slowly with a cane and wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt.

HAVANA, Cuba - Monday began even earlier than usual for the journalists traveling on Pope Francis' plane this week. We are bound today for Holguin (I'm told the "H" is silent) on the eastern end of Cuba. It's the nation's fourth-largest city.

Advance copies of today's papal homily would be available in the hotel lobby between 4 and 4:15 a.m., the Vatican Press Office told us yesterday. But that's just too early for me. I arise instead at a sluggardly 4:25 a.m., and arrive in the lobby at 5 to find a half-dozen colleagues queued up to pay their hotel fees. A few are surprised to learn of the 100-peso fee (cash only) for use of the media center set up here at the Hotel Nacional for Francis' visit. But it had been worth it. Many of Francis' venues Saturday and Sunday, such as those with Fidel and Raul Castro, were closed to all or most journalists. But we were able to watch on TV, and file stories and photos with Internet access that was otherwise most elusive even here in the capital.

After breakfast, we board buses at 6:30 for Jose Marti Airport. It's still dark when we arrive, and are swiftly ushered through a door into a remarkably trusting security checkpoint. Our bags and backpacks and watches and belt buckles are all making the metal detector sing, but we are waved through and scanned the old-fashioned way: by hand-held devices. Shoes on. Laptops in their cases.

We pass through the terminal onto the tarmac, and just about every one of us stops in awe. Yes, it's a regular Alitalia Airbus 330. But in the dawn's early light, full-length in front of us, polished and glowing white, the pope's plane looks majestic. All but the most jaded pause to take photos, or ask a chum to take one for them with the "popemoplane," as I call it, as a backdrop. I am among them.

We board. Somehow Pope Francis makes his way on board after us, undetected and without ceremony, at the front of the plane. At precisely 8 a.m. we are roaring down the runway and lifting skyward.

On landing we are hurried off the plane to watch him appear at the door and greet a small and likely selected crowd of flag-wavers, who cheer. We are then hurried onto buses to follow his motorcade to Holguin, about 15 minutes away.

There are crowds flanking the roads outside the airport, including what look like whole schools of children wearing identical uniforms. As we pass onto rural roads the crowds thin, then attenuate into occasional clusters of people standing outside their homes, or at the edges of fields dotted with palm trees. There are green hills in the distance. This is the Cuba we have seen in photos for decades.

Many watching the motorcade are wearing dungarees and T-shirts, baseball caps and straw hats. These are surely "los pobres de la tierra" of Jose Marti's famous poem, which the American folk singer Pete Seeger popularized as the song "Guantanamera." But this seems a poverty markedly less onerous than what I encountered on the coast of Kenya earlier this year. There, many still live in grass-roof huts, feed their goats on garbage, and turn a blind eye when daughters turn to prostitution to support their families.

Today, zooming by at 40 m.p.h, my fleeting and very superficial impression is that life here in rural Cuba is hard but not so desperately poor as parts of Africa.

"Who am I to judge?" as Francis might ask? But I get a sense that for all the poverty and struggle of the Cuban people, some still take pride in the Castro brothers' defiant socialist experiment.

Like Hifilo.

He was one of the many departing Francis' Mass after Communion, walking slowly with a cane. He replied "si" when I asked if he spoke English (I don't speak Spanish), but it quickly became apparent he knew perhaps a dozen words. I wanted to talk to him, though, because he was wearing a T-shirt bearing that iconic image of Che Guevara, the hero-martyr of the Cuban Revolution, scowling and bearded in a beret. What intrigued me, too, were those little Cuban and papal flags he was carrying.

I pointed to Che. "You like him?" I asked. Hifilo (short for Raphael, no last name) beamed.

"Che bueno," he said. "Comandante en el fuego." I took this to mean "commander in the fire," i.e., the 1959 revolution.

"Si. Che. Yay," he said, making two thumbs up. He then surprised me and tucked the two flags into my shirt pocket.

I asked how old he was. He signaled with eight fingers, then two. I wrote down "82" and showed it to him.

"Si, si," he said, and when I expressed surprise and admiration he tilted his thumb to his mouth and shook his head, which I took to mean "I don't drink alcohol." He then laughed and said "Mucho café, y tabaco," and made a gesture of puffing on a cigar.

So far so good. But finding out what he'd done for a living was a challenge. After several queries I made a gesture of shoveling and said something like "La-bore" for work, labor. He got it, and claimed he'd never worked and had no pension.

Really? Well, OK. But shrugs and finger pointing failed utterly when I tried to understand what had brought him to Pope Francis' Mass. I queried at least a dozen passersby if they spoke English. One after another said no. Then Hifilo spotted a man in a blue cap and called him over.

Ivan, 42, spoke English. I asked him to ask Hifilo what had brought him to Francis' Mass. I had not expected his reply.

"I come because he represents a lot like God on Earth," Hifilo replied through Ivan. "He is like a father for the Cuban people. . ..He has a heart for everybody. " He said he was Catholic, but did not go to church often. He said he'd taken Communion at the Mass.

So, who did he admire more, Che, or Pope Francis?

He was puzzled for a moment, then brightened, and pointed to the image on his shirt.

"Oh, he said. "Che."

Viva la Revolucion.

Hifilo clearly had a capitalist streak in him, however. Before parting he pinched his thumb and forefinger together and said "No money."

With my few pesos of no value starting Tuesday afternoon, when we depart nearby Santiago for Joint Base Andrews and Washington, D.C., I handed him a five. We shook hands, and he shuffled down the road. I'd paid for my two flags.