Pope's Visit to Cuba Could Stir Political, Religious, Economic Pot

Article excerpt

Cuba," says my exiled Cuban friend, "is not Poland."

He means that Pope John Paul, when he visits Cuba next month, will not have the same transforming effect as the Polish pope had on Poland when it lingered under communist influence.

Fidel Castro is intent on orchestrating the pope's visit to his own advantage. Nevertheless, Pope John Paul will focus a sharp spotlight on religion and human rights in Cuba at a time when the country is in quest of a new - albeit not necessarily noncommunist - identity. Much significance attaches to a visit this week by a Vatican advance party that will make two extraordinary demands. One, says an expert close to the negotiations, is that Cuba restore Christmas Day as a holiday. "How," this expert asks, "can the pope visit a country that refuses to let its people celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ?" The second requirement is that the pope's program - including a mass to be held in Havana, as well as several others in outlying cities - be covered live on Cuban TV. If this condition is met, it will ensure that the pope's message on both religion and human rights will be seen and heard in its entirety by tens of thousands of Cubans, and not filtered through edited government broadcasts at the end of each day. The Castro regime clearly is ambiguous about the church's role in Cuba. Recently, in government decree No. 144 of 1997, it withdrew from church officials the right they had previously enjoyed to shop in dollar stores for computer and other imported equipment. The regime also ordered Roman Catholic priests to abandon a popular program for providing meals to older citizens unless they secure special licenses. Over the years, Castro has not had much to fear from the Roman Catholic Church because it has retained an aura of colonialism dating back to the Spanish-American War. When Castro assumed power, he shipped several hundred nuns and priests back to Spain. Since then, the Vatican has kept a low profile. The church in Cuba has not generated a core of Cuban priests but has been heavy with priests from Mexico and France. Without a nationalist flavor, the church has not developed a huge following. Castro apparently anticipates that he can enlist the pope's support in the campaign to thwart American economic sanctions against Cuba, without affording the pope the opportunity to erode Havana's governing communist regime. …